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Mexico's real test begins as Martino aims to avoid past knockout round stumbles

2:50 AM GMT+8 30/06/2019
Tata Martino Mexico
For the first time in the Tata Martino era, El Tri face a match that truly is a must-win in Saturday's quarterfinal against Costa Rica

Mexico did what it needed to do in the Gold Cup group stage. Now, the tough part begins.

El Tri haven't been good at all in the knockout rounds of the last few tournaments. In the last three summers, Mexico has gotten out of its group in its most important summer tournament only to fall short in its first knockout match. There was the loss to Brazil at the 2018 World Cup and blowout defeats to Germany and Chile in the 2017 Confederations Cup and 2016 Copa America Centenario.

Saturday's task, beating Costa Rica and moving into the Gold Cup semifinals, looks to have a lower degree of difficulty. Yet, Mexico manager Tata Martino is hyper-alert to that history - and the fact that while so far he's faced little resistance leading El Tri, that would quickly change if the team falls short in his first major tournament.

Mexico is the favorite, and in Martino's eyes it should be. But to be the champion, it needs to be focused on this game against the Ticos.

"With what we saw in the previous phase, there's no reason to fall into some type of overconfidence. Even beyond the opponent's historic success, it's a quarterfinal," the coach said at a news conference Friday. "We're on the wrong path if we're overconfident.

"I don't have to talk the players right now about what place they see Mexico in, in regards to the Gold Cup. When we talked as we came here, before the friendlies, we knew the place we were in. We accept that role, and we’re open to showing it in every one of the games we’ve played and the games we're going to play."

The matchup may lend Martino an assist in getting his squad to be sharp. The coach admitted he wasn't expecting to see Costa Rica this early in the tournament, with the matchup looking like it would be the semifinal in Phoenix. Even if Haiti shouldn't have been overlooked , those who designed the tournament likely envisioned the two teams at the most recent World Cup coming together later before a potential Mexico-U.S. final (or, say, Costa Rica vs. Jamaica).

But Costa Rica is a team Mexico knows well and against which it has played many good matchups in the past. Now led by Gustavo Matosas, a manager familiar with Mexican football , Costa Rica will come out to push El Tri with an attacking style. 

"I feel very good. This is the soccer that I like," Matosas said Friday. "It's good to be able to go blow-by-blow with Mexico."

Mexico will look to land a knockout punch rather than letting Costa Rica hang around and have a chance to win by decision. Despite plenty of experience in the back, that's where El Tri have struggled so far in the Martino era. Up front, they've found a way, scoring three or more goals in every game played under the Argentine.

"We've got to adapt to any situation or style of play the opponent presents. Our idea always is to control the game, not to wait and see what the opposition does," Martino said. "If we can put down our idea, surely we'll play a closer game to the one we want.

"It's true that this opponent has some big-time players and it could be that during some times we may not be able to implement what we want, but in general terms I don't think we need to adjust ourselves to the rival. What we need is to find answers for any opponent we find in front of use, whether it be a friendly match or an official game."

There is no doubt that this one counts. Lose, and you're out. There is no more Gold Cup, and there are no more official games until the Nations League. There are no more tournament games until 2021, barring a last-minute addition to some competition in 2020. This one will be remembered for a long time, and Mexico have to win.

"Obviously, the big difference between a group game and one in the quarterfinals is there are 90 minutes and you go to your house if things don't go well," the coach said. "We know that errors in those situations are fatal. We have to try and keep our style of play in the different conditions the game presents.

"It's one thing to do it in a tournament where you have 19 matches, accepting that you can make a mistake in one or two and come back from that because there's still a lot in front of you. Other times, there are teams who lose this form because they know that everything starts and ends in 90 minutes of soccer.

"It's a different way of seeing tomorrow's game and to see if we're capable of confirming our current form."

Martino will want everyone on his team seeing the game in the latter way, like 90 minutes that will determine the trajectory of the national team. Whether they buy in or not, it's 90 minutes that will determine whether Mexico can lift the Gold Cup. So far El Tri have won every game in the Martino era, but the real must-wins start now.