Mexico has been looking forward to this contest against Belgium since it was announced, and it didn't disappoint. Too often in CONCACAF, teams sit back and force Mexico to fight through a defensive alignment. You can't blame them. Mexico has more talent, and they feel it will give them the best chance to win. Friday's game against the Red Devils never was going to be like that. Belgium was going to come out to play soccer.
It didn't disappoint. It was a wild game, ending in a 3-3 draw after both teams held the lead. Each made mistakes that will have their particular managers concerned about what will happen if those same errors are committed in Russia. Each also showed plenty of reason to think they can achieve their World Cup goals.
Let's take a look back at five things from the contest:
Two defensive midfielders provide comfort
Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio doesn't love playing with two defensive midfielders, but during training ths week reports said that the team was leaning toward that alignment. That's exactly what happened, and it benefited Mexico on Friday.
Andres Guardado came back inside and paired with Diego Reyes (we'll talk more about him in point three). It allowed Mexico to control possession in the first 15 minutes and do so again during other periods of the game. While Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard both found moments to work and set up Romelu Lukaku during the game, Mexico wasn't overrun as it has been in previous games against top opposition.
"We played against an opponent who is very well-placed in the FIFA rankings with a very attractive style of football, an aggressive goal, which is enviable," Osorio said in his post-match news conference. "We put out a game where we were equal. We controlled the game in certain moments.
"We had various goals, trying to limit transitions from defense to attack, to control the game. We messed up twice in the first half and that's where they had their chances."
It may not be his favorite style, but Osorio has to like the results. We could see another 4-2-3-1 or some permutation of that again when El Tri faces up against another team that can put pressure on the back line.
Moreno off the pace
Hector Moreno may be Mexico's most important player. Not only is he critical to the defense, he also is called upon to start attacks and create chances with his excellent left-footed passing. Normally, the Sinaloa native is a bright spot for the national team, but he had a poor performance Friday. Moreno was badly beaten by Lukaku on more than one occasion. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was there to bail him out a few times, but the opener that the Manchester United star created has to fall somewhat on Moreno's shoulders. His play didn't get better as the night went on.
There has to be concern from the coaching staff that Moreno is seeing only a handful of minutes since his move from PSV to Roma during the offseason, and some of those aren't coming at his preferred center back position. Moreno is an experienced veteran, but even so he needs to be in a rhythm. For now, this game can be dismissed as an anomaly. He must work to make sure it isn't a pattern.
Reyes growing, but lack of minutes still a concern
Like Moreno, Diego Reyes is seeing little action with his club. When he is playing for Porto, he's been seeing time as a defensive midfielder. He's always looked lost there for the national team - going back years. Mexico fans buckled in for more of the same when Hazard whipped by Reyes early to set up the first goal. They must have been pleasantly surprised when Reyes started looking more comfortable over the next 50 minutes before Edson Alvarez replaced him an hour into the night.
It's unlikely Reyes will get much more time, though Porto is still alive in the UEFA Champions League as well as the domestic competitions. Maybe Reyes as a defensive midfielder could be arranged. Getting a move away and finding a team where he can play center back regularly would be more helpful because, despite Friday's game that saw both players make big gaffes and Nestor Araujo play pretty well, a Moreno-Reyes pairing still seems like Mexico's best. The fact that Reyes may have learned from his mistake, though, is a bright spot for a player who has had too few of them over the last year.
Attacking depth holds up
It would've been easy for Mexico's attack to fall flat Friday. Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, who missed the match because of a family issue, has been one of the most consistent contributors in the Osorio era. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez went out injured just after the halftime break. Yet Mexico was still able to stretch the Belgian defense, continuing the same strategy of looking for balls over the top to beat Belgium's high line or finding Lozano and Vela wide.
There are ready-made replacements for Corona, who himself may not have a guaranteed spot with Hirving Lozano's stunning emergence, and Chicharito with Raul Jimenez able to play as a center forward.
"Among the things we should take advantage of is the great form Hirving is going through, and we also should be aware that every one of us must do the things we know how to do," Jimenez said after the match.
While the finishing toward the end of the match again let Mexico down, and perhaps kept the side from taking even more from the game, it was an overall solid performance from an attack that is more thin than it has been in previous contests.
Poland providing bigger sandbox
Osorio approaches all games differently, but the match against Poland on Monday will look much different than Friday's against Belgium. For one, it's a tighter turnaround than Mexico is used to with the game coming just three days after the last contest. But Osorio also will want a look at some of the depth players he called in. He was clear in his pre-match comments that the Belgium game would serve as a test for his best players, saying he hoped for a showing like the one his team logged in the early stage of the Confederations Cup. He mostly got that.
Now, it's time for players who got in during the second half Friday to take on a bigger role against a Poland side that will be without Robert Lewandowski but still is potent. Giovani dos Santos and his brother, Jonathan, both will see more time. Alvarez was in line to but is now questionable after leaving Friday with an injury. Jurgen Damm may get a longer audition in part because of Corona's departure.
"We want to give a chance to the others who have a lot of desire to contribute. We'll see if we can try another structure of play - Poland plays differently than Belgium," Osorio said after Friday's contest. "We'll see how the players wake up tomorrow, we'll train and we'll make those decisions."
No matter what the decisions are, look for a more experimental El Tri than the group of 'old reliables' who logged solid minutes Friday. The World Cup games may pass in what feels like the blink of an eye, and players 19-23 on the roster must be just as ready to contribute as the first players on the list for Russia.