The games that matter start Thursday for Mexico, and Mexico must believe that Thursday matters.
Of all the matches Mexico could overlook this summer, the World Cup qualifier against Honduras stands out. There's little chance El Tri would look past a rivalry game Sunday with the United States, and the Confederations Cup that follows soon after is Mexico's top priority for the summer.
Honduras? It's a team floundering in World Cup qualification while Mexico is flying at the top. But Los Catrachos have become accustomed to playing spoiler for El Tri, winning in Mexico City in 2013 and getting a draw less than a year ago in the previous round of qualifying.
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio says this game will be very different from the previous contest, which saw a depleted Mexico side struggle to create chances against Honduras' staunch back line.
"You have to remember that in the last game we used other players," Osorio said at a news conference Thursday. "I remember Jesus Duenas, Angel Zaldivar, Javier Aquino or Angel Sepulveda. I think the game plan could be the same but the technical quality the players have is different. I think the injuries at that time, they didn't give us many options. It was well controlled and managed."
Things indeed have changed since September. After Mexico finished the fourth round undefeated, it continued its unbeaten run with 10 points from the first four matches of the Hex. Honduras has just four points and was left reeling by a 6-0 thumping against the U.S.
Still, with the Central Americans set for their next three Hex matches on the road, El Tri will find a team that respects them but will be desperate for a result to get back into the qualification places.
"I think Mexico is a national team that knows how to decide matches in the moments when they have to be decided. We’ve already seen in these last few games they’ve played and also playing them several times that it’s one of the best national teams there is today," Honduras captain Maynor Figueroa told Goal. "We have to look at them carefully off the field, but on the field we’re 11 vs. 11 and we’ve got to fight against them."
While Osorio is correct in saying his team will have more talent than the one that couldn't score in September, he'll also be utilizing players who might not typically play in World Cup qualifiers. Andres Guardado and Nestor Araujo are doubts, as is Jurgen Damm, who stood out in a win over Costa Rica the last time Mexico played in the Azteca.
Beyond the injuries, he'll also be making sure players get up to full fitness ahead of Sunday's game against the U.S. — a match he cannot lose — and the Confederations Cup that begins a week later — a tournament in which the team cannot disappoint.
That could serve as motivation for the green players who will be tapped to start in Thursday's game. But they also could wither under the pressure not only of the game but also the job they'll be given to start off Mexico's jam-packed summer with a positive result, rather than a loss or even a draw that could leave a bitter taste.
"Everybody here in the group knows the responsibility of wearing this shirt. We always go out on the field, trying to do give our best, but the opponent also counts," playmaker Giovani dos Santos said. "(Thursday) we'll give the best of ourselves and look to get the win."
That will be required for Mexico in a match that would be easy to overlook but has big repercussions for the rest of the year.