As much as Mexico fans would hate to admit it, it was Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA that laid down the template in recent times for how to successfully come away with a positive result against Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre’s side in the Estadio Azteca.
It was that friendly back in August 2012 that Klinsmann packed the US defense, kept the midfield extremely tight and shut off the space down the center of the field, leaving Mexico nowhere to turn apart from long balls or crosses into Javier Hernandez, who was easily picked off by the physically-superior US center backs. A late goal from Michael Orozco Fiscal then brought an unlikely first victory for the Stars and Stripes on Mexican soil.
With hindsight, bearing in mind that rampant 4-2 Gold Cup final win over the US in June 2011, it now seems obvious that the way to stop Mexico was through patient defense and almost letting El Tri’s players trip themselves over, but nobody could’ve predicted that El Tri and Chepo would have such difficultly coming up with a Plan B to counter it.
Klinsmann repeated the tactic in the World Cup qualifier back in March and Costa Rica followed suit in June, but even Jamaica had done the same in the Azteca back in February and the Reggae Boyz could be considered unlucky not to get a victory considering some of the chances they had on the counter.
Since then, the Gold Cup has shown Mexico – and specifically Chepo – has not got over the problem, while games against teams in Japan, Nigeria and Ivory Coast that do leave space has brought the kinds of performances that El Tri fans are perhaps more accustomed do.
The crunch game against Honduras isn’t likely to bring any surprises from the opposition. Chepo admitted he believes Los Catrachos will play much the same way as other teams have recently at the Azteca. To be fair, who wouldn’t with the recent success away teams have enjoyed, especially with anything less than a win for Mexico putting its World Cup qualification in legitimate doubt?
It would be a massive shock if Honduras did anything but park the bus, maintain a disciplined, packed midfield and aim to sneak a goal or two on a counterattack or from a setpiece.
The onus is therefore on Chepo and his players to come up with something different in front of a crowd that will be turned easily having been weaned on Mexico home games in the Azteca being more of a national celebration than a serious football match with points at stake. Let’s not forget Mexico’s record in the Azteca in World Cup qualifying is one of the best in world soccer.
It seems like Chepo will opt for experience to handle the pressures of an expectant public, with the most notable expression of that Fernando Arce and Christian Gimenez likely to start in midfield. Captain Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez is probably ahead of Diego Reyes – in Chepo’s eyes – while Gerardo Torrado seems to be inked in, with the outside possibility that it is Carlos Salcido who starts at left back.
Regardless of who is in the initial XI, starting the game off on the right foot will be key. An early goal would ease the whole atmosphere, but even if it doesn’t happen, Mexico must cling to some of the positives from the Ivory Coast game that it seemed to have forgotten, like pressurizing high up the field, not letting Honduras have a minute’s peace in midfield by playing a higher-paced game than it has in recent World Cup qualifiers.
It sounds simple and on paper there is no doubt that Mexico is by far the superior team, but that is no kind of guarantee of victory.
All eyes are on De la Torre to see what his solution will be to a reoccurring problem. If there isn’t one, his days as national team boss are numbered and Mexico will be in genuine danger of missing out on Brazil 2014.
Predicted lineup (4-3-3): Jesus Corona, Severo Meza, Hector Moreno, Rodriguez, Salcido, Torrado, Arce, Gimenez, Angel Reyna, Giovani Dos Santos, Hernandez