Tom Marshall: No margin for error for Vucetich's Mexico

Mexico plays its most important World Cup qualifying match Friday, knowing that any slip-up could cost El Tri a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Panama coach Julio Cesar Dely Valdes has done his best to get under Mexico’s skin ahead of Friday’s showdown in Mexico City.

He suggested the Argentine national anthem should be played instead of the Mexican one when El Tri takes to field at Estadio Azteca, due to the presence of two Argentina-born players in Mexico’s squad. Dely Valdes then retracted on Wednesday and pleaded for “thousands” of apologies for any offense he caused on Wednesday.

But the talking is almost over, and while the words may have wound up Christian “Chaco” Gimenez slightly – he called them “disrespectful” - Mexico’s biggest opponent so far this disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign has been itself.

The bottom line remains that Brazil 2014 will sail by if Mexico does not improve on its showing so far this year. El Tri has won just once in eight games in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, has scored only four goals and is in fifth place with two games remaining.

Anything other that a win on Friday and Mexico’s World Cup fate is out of its own hands heading into the final game in Costa Rica. The consequences of Mexico not making the World Cup almost don’t bear thinking about, from the effect it would have on the sport in the country, to the huge economic losses for both Mexico and Brazil, with thousands of Mexicans expected to head south if El Tri does make it.

Heading into the vital match, the change from Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre to Victor Manuel Vucetich – known as “King Midas” – seems to have had a positive effect. Certainly, the new coach’s press conferences are much more relaxed, and players have spoken about enjoying the training and being ready for the game.

“We’ve seen a change in attitude in the players, in the harmony, the happiness and in the skill,” Vucetich said Tuesday.

Yet plenty of question marks still remain. Who will be the goalkeeper? Will Rafa Marquez will start in central defense? Who will be alongside him? Will Vucetich go with Oribe Peralta and Javier Hernandez up front? In midfield, will the veteran Gerardo Torrado hold his place, or make way for younger challengers?

The questions go on and on, with the spine of the team particularly up in the air, as is the formation, making team predictions difficult. What we are likely to see is a team that hasn’t played much before, and even if the domestic-based players have had 10 days training, it does put the predicament that Mexico is in into sharp perspective.

There is no room for error. Whatever the starting XI is, the real key to wining the game is going to be finding a way around Panama’s parked bus. The Central Americans are unlikely to be expansive, but instead keep the game as tight as possible, with little space between the defense and midfield for Mexico’s creative players to get time on the ball.

When in possession, Panama will counterattack with pace, hoping to catch out a Mexican defense that could include veterans Marquez and Carlos Salcido – hardly the speediest at this stage of their careers. It’s a template that has been successfully tried and tested by Mexico’s opposition in World Cup qualifying so far, and the emphasis is on Vucetich and his players to come up with the solution where Chepo failed.

It promises to be a fascinating and nail-biting affair.