Can Mexico's Olympic hero bring about a change in El Tri's fortunes and help Mexico make a World Cup push?If the current Mexican national team was a telenovela (soap opera) from south of the border, it couldn’t have been scripted any better in terms of intrigue ahead of Tuesday’s crunch clash against the team's archival, the United States.
El Tri is battered and bruised, reeling from only its second ever home loss in World Cup qualifying. On the other side of the fence, the bitter rival is almost over the World Cup qualification line and will have the vehement backing of a crowd that smells blood.
The villain of Mexico’s World Cup qualifying disaster, Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre, has finally been cast aside for the hero of 2012 Olympic gold medal winning side, Luis Fernando Tena to sweep in and come to the rescue. On the side, the ‘bad boy’ of the piece Carlos Vela has been stirring the pot, ,giving implicit messages over social networks that he really is keen on playing at the World Cup, after all.
The drama that has accompanied El Tri in the whirlwind last few days has largely destroyed the usual talk of how vibrant the US-Mexico rivalry is. That highlights just how important Tuesday is, for those three vital points alone.
New interim Mexico coach Tena was quick to stamp out any notion that El Tri will be radically different in makeup on Tuesday than the dire effort against Honduras last Friday in the 2-1 defeat inside the Estadio Azteca.
On the one hand, it was a purely rational statement, borne out of the fact that the squad and coaching staff is largely the same one that has failed Mexico thus far in World Cup qualifying in 2013, but the caveat is that it is more than probable Tena wants to dampen expectations with one eye on taking over permanently.
The obvious truth is that even if the players are the same, the need for radical improvement – even if there is a three-day gap ahead of Tuesday’s vital game - is not only necessary, but imperative. A place at the World Cup is at stake.
Tena needs to drag a team that has been lacking leadership and character and drive belief into it and there are reasons to believe that he can rally the Mexico squad ahead of the game.
The relaxed Tena is certainly more personable than the prickly Chepo and in the London Olympics the spirit in the squad was widely acknowledged as being a key factor in Mexico taking gold, with Tena winning plaudits for his role in creating the unison.
The three overage players at the Olympics – Jesus Corona, Carlos Salcido and Oribe Peralta – are all in this Mexico squad, as are Olympians Hiram Mier, Diego Reyes, Hector Herrera, Giovani Dos Santos, Javier Aquino and Raul Jimenez. That’s nine of the 23-man squad.
In terms of motivation, the psychological break from Chepo could turn out to be crucial, and, in an inverse sense, playing away from Mexico in the hardest game of qualifying could work in El Tri’s favor, working as the outsider far from the pressure cauldron that is Mexico at present. Also, the last two qualifiers will be crucial for Mexico regardless of the result on Tuesday. In that sense, the game isn’t do-or-die.
Then there is Tena himself as a motivator
“Remember that we are very respectful, off the field,” said Tena in an impassioned team talk before the Brazil final in the Olympics, as shown on the documentary “Oro.” “On the field we don’t respect anyone.”
Some will debate how vital a team talk is, but that one gives you goose-bumps just watching and an insight as to what Tena brings to El Tri.
Of course, vital questions remain, such as whether 20-year-old Reyes retains the start after his mistake on Friday, whether the experienced Guardado returns to the lineup, if Tena chooses Peralta, Javier Hernandez or both and if the younger Olympians like Mier and Aquino will get a look in.
In terms of tactics, Tena is of the Lapuente school with a more defensive outlook and El Tri will probably reflect that on Tuesday, in the knowledge that historically a draw in the United States can be considered an excellent result.