Tom Marshall: Finally, El Tri clicks into gear

After a year full of disappointing performances, Mexico, playing with only Liga MX players, battered New Zealand at the Estadio Azteca.

MEXICO CITY – When the tall, gangly former Stuttgart defender Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez managed to tunnel New Zealand’s Chris Wood with less than 50 minutes gone, you knew things were going well for Mexico on Wednesday in Estadio Azteca.

It was an afternoon in which the little things finally came off for Mexico, aided by a lackluster New Zealand which badly missed captain Winston Reid at the heart of its defense.

Whether it was the afternoon kick-off, the change in formation or the effect of Miguel Herrera’s bold decision to back domestic Liga MX players and ditch the Europe-based ones, El Tri’s 5-1 victory over New Zealand’s felt like a cleansing of sorts.

It also means Mexico taking its place at Brazil is almost a formality ahead of next week’s second leg of the World Cup playoff in Wellington, which is a relief for Mexico economically, but also for the pride of Mexican soccer in general.

Gone were the nerves, replaced by wave after wave of incessant attack, aided by a 5-3-2 formation that saw Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun pushing high up, suffocating New Zealand and giving the Kiwis very little room to keep the ball long when they got it.

It was a performance that swept aside any notion that this was a game in which Mexico was under intense pressure to perform.

“The important thing was to not to despair, not to go crazy,” said Herrera in the postgame press conference. “I said we were going to win beforehand because of the attitude I saw in the team.”

The Mexico coach added that El Tri will go out to win the second leg in Wellington as if the game was 0-0, looking to take the game to New Zealand once again.

Herrera’s high-risk decision to start with seven players from Club America – as well as three from Leon - was fully vindicated.

There was an understanding between the different zones of the team that hasn’t been seen recently for Mexico. This was evidenced by the one-touch football that helped moved the New Zealand defense out of position and opened up spaces to exploit.

The best example was Oribe Peralta’s second goal just after halftime, when Rafa Marquez launched an inch-perfect long pass for Miguel Layun to cross and set up the Santos Laguna striker.

But there were many other examples of Mexico’s return to the kind of play that had many thinking El Tri was on an upward spiral that would see it ease through CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Carlos Pena was a revelation in driving El Tri forward and linking the midfield to strikers Peralta and Raul Jimenez and Mexico produced chance after chance. If it wasn’t for New Zealand ‘keeper Glen Moss, the margin could’ve been even wider.

Outside the stadium, the faces of star names like Javier Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos and Guillermo Ochoa still adorn the advertising boards, but this was a day in which the best of the Liga MX more than staked their claim to become permanent fixtures in the national team.

So what now for El Tri, after the second leg?

Herrera was keen to stress after the game that the Europe-based players are still “important” for Mexico moving forward, but he was equally keen to stress that he is on a temporary contract with the Mexican federation.

“I’m coach for two games, that’s the reality,” he stated. “I’ve won one important game, nothing more.”

Off the field, too, the fans played their part and gave Herrera a standing ovation even before the game. There is no doubt he is the popular choice for getting the job full time.

The Azteca was completely full, fans turning up well before the game, starting Mexican waves and creating a hostile atmosphere for New Zealand to come into.

In his postgame press conference, New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert was adamant that his side still has a glimmer of hope, but it is nothing more.

Mexico’s World Cup dream, with a little help from the United States last month, is very still alive.