After a year disappointing performances, El Tri, playing with only Liga MX players, all but sealed their place at next summer's World Cup with a resounding win at the Azteca
By Tom Marshall
When the tall, gangly former Stuttgart defender Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez managed to nutmeg New Zealand’s Chris Wood with less than 50 minutes gone, you knew things were going well for Mexico at the Estadio Azteca on Wednesday.
It was an afternoon on which the little things finally came off for El Tri, though they were undeniably aided by a lacklustre New Zealand side that badly missed captain Winston Reid at the heart of its defence.
Whether it was the early 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, Mexico’s 5-1 victory felt like a cleansing of sorts.
It also means that qualification for the 2014 World is almost a formality ahead of next week’s second-leg clash in Wellington, which is a boost for Mexico economically, but also in terms of the pride of Mexican soccer in general.
Gone were the nerves that blighted their Concacaf qualification campaign, replaced instead by wave after wave of confident, structured attacking, primarily thanks to 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 display that made a mockery of the suggestion that Mexico might struggle to perform, so great was the pressure placed upon them.
“The important thing was to not to despair, not to go crazy,” said Herrera in the post-game 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 areas of the team that hasn’t been seen of late. This was evidenced by the one-touch football that helped move the New Zealand defence out of position and open up spaces to exploit.
The best example was Oribe Peralta’s second goal just after half-time, when Rafa Marquez launched an inch-perfect long pass for Miguel Layun to cross and set up the Santos Laguna striker.
However, 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 their qualifying section.
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 hadn't been 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 next for El Tri, after the second leg?
Herrera stated 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.
“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 post-game 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 much still alive.