We’re back underway. Wednesday evening’s 3-1 win against Venezuela marked the start of Mexico’s 2012 campaign, though there was a glaring absence – with the game not falling on a FIFA date, both teams had to make do without their European-based talent.
That situation put Mexico in a unique position, though, as it has very few regular national team players based abroad compared to teams such as the U.S. and Venezuela, which found themselves still using mostly domestic players while in action this month.
With just 11 players who were called up to El Tri in 2011 now based in Europe and just one more (Rafael Marquez) in the United States, it is inevitable that manager Jose Manuel de la Torre will have to call upon players based in Mexico at some point as the race for the 2014 World Cup kicks off.
Still, that did not stop Rafael Marquez Lugo and Jesus Molina, two of those called by de la Torre, from making comments to the media earlier in the week to the effect that players playing in Europe are favored for selection, even if they are not playing as regularly as their counterparts in Mexico.
“There are some [players] that are in Europe and have quality, but also here in Mexico, it’s difficult to play and it is not easy to stand out; then, the fight [for places] is fair and as a consequence, the national team will be better,” Marquez Lugo told mediotiempo.com. “It’s something natural because they are in better leagues, at a more important level of competition, but some don’t play and have to come back an earn their spot.”
Is there any truth to these claims? Given the current statuses of Mexican players across the Atlantic, you could say that the players’ claims are not completely unfounded. Center back and goalkeeper seem like the only seemingly untouchable positions when it comes to Mexican-based players getting a look in.
Hector Moreno and Francisco Rodriguez are regular starters for Espanyol and Stuttgart, respectively, and getting regular minutes, while Rafael Marquez up in MLS has also played in the position for Mexico, and many would argue that his selection is based more on reputation than his recent showings with the New York Red Bulls.
However, given the performance of Mexico’s center backs in Houston, it seems as though none of those positions will be under threat. Tigres’ Hugo Ayala put in a decent performance and made his case for a backup spot, but his partner, Edgar Dueñas, stuggled to make an impact and was slow to pick up Venezuela’s forwards.
Regardless of whether the sentiment that European-based players are favored holds, it’s hard to see any of these center backs featuring regularly when qualifying kicks off, and while Jose de Jesus Corona impressed on Wednesday evening, it is unlikely he will be wresting the starting spot from Guillermo Ochoa any time soon.
One defensive player who won’t be going anywhere though is Carlos Salcido. The former Fulham man shone wherever he showed up on the field, whether it was his initial assignment at left back, or in the center of midfield, where he provided a stabilizing presence and bagged the goal that inspired Mexico’s comeback. Although he will be 32 by the time qualifying starts, his form with El Tri has been excellent even since his move back to UANL Tigres in summer 2011.
On the other hand, Pablo Barrera should be looking over his back. The Zaragoza winger has struggled to make his mark in Europe, failing to translate his performance with the national team to any sort of success with West Ham the previous season and now finding himself on the out at Zaragoza following the departure of Javier Aguirre.
Perhaps sensing the opportunity, Mexico’s wingers by and large put in a sterling performance on Wednesday evening. Javier Cortes caused all sorts of problems down the right flank before his 61st minute substitution. Even more encouraging, highly-rated prospect Javier Aquino came in off the bench and was involved in all of Mexico’s goals, his highlight being a delightful through pass that led to Mexico’s second.
How these players fit in with other wing options will be an interesting storyline to follow. They are both nominally right wingers (though Aquino played on the left at times), which helps them avoid competition with the in-form Andres Guardado, though the real question will pose itself when they come up against the likes of Giovani dos Santos and Barrera for a starting spot, both of whom have been underwhelming in their European adventure, despite undeniable talent. This is the one battle that will prove indicative of how de la Torre will proceed with evaluating his domestic-based talent versus their European counterparts
More important than any player performance, though, was the character Mexico showed in coming back from a goal down against a very physical Venezuela side. The team looked sluggish and shocked after a breakdown in marking allowed Edgar Perez Greco to flick a corner kick into the net minutes after the restart, and struggled with the (some would argue overly) physical game the vinotinto subjected it to.
Nevertheless, it kept on with its gameplan, and it took a moment of inspiration from its leader on the night, Salcido, to get back into the game, as the veteran unleashed with his less-favored right foot, and with the aid of a slight deflection, restored the confidence that Mexico so desperately needed. With that spark of inspiration, the turnaround seemed inevitable, even if it took until the final two minutes of the encounter to manifest itself.
In addition to the resilient attitude that had been missing from Mexico teams in the past, much had been made in the Mexican media over the question of discipline, especially after de la Torre recalld four players who were kicked off the Copa America team in June 2011 after a prostitution scandal. However, this proved to be a stroke of genius from Mexico’s coach, as all four players – Cortes, Marco Fabian, Oribe Peralta and Rafael Marquez Lugo, had their moments on the night.
Cortes and Fabian redeemed themselves with strong play in the midfield, showing why they are two of the brightest talents in Mexico. Though Peralta was poor for most of the game – his touch was heavy and his positioning needed work – he came good at the end, rasping a strike into the far corner of the net for Mexico’s third and final goal, while Marquez Lugo found himself in the right place at the right time to score the second.
If there were any signs of discord or discontent over the eventual inclusion of European-based players in the national team, they certainly did not manifest themselves on Wedensday. Rather than sulk, de la Torre’s home-based contingent turned in a workmanlike performance that indicates 2012 could be a strong year for Mexican players, regardless of where they play.
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