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Martino given chance to shuffle deck as ailing Mexico faces Martinique

11:15 AM EDT 6/23/19
Tata Martino Mexico
With several notable injuries, El Tri could use Sunday's Gold Cup clash as a chance to foster competition with knockout matches looming

Tata Martino said all of the things one would expect ahead of Sunday's match against Martinique. He hit all of the necessary talking points, playing up Martinique's chances while insisting Mexico would never take an opponent lightly no matter the scenario.

Mexico's spot in the knockout round is essentially already secure. A 7-0 battering of Cuba and a professional 3-1 win over Canada have El Tri atop the group and, barring a stunning loss that includes a massive swing in goal differential, El Tri will play on in the Gold Cup.

Despite that fact, Martino ticked all of the boxes when it came to talking up Martinique, but it is hard not to see El Tri's final group stage match as anything other than a logical resting point for some and, for others, as one last chance to stake their claim in Martino's frequently rotated XI ahead of the bigger challenges to come.

"The Mexican player is always very competitive, so when you have a very competitive squad that knows how to face opponents of a different nature, the only thing that happens for me is that we must prepare more to always compete in the same way," the manager said.

"Mexico has the characteristics in its games against different rivals and suddenly they become real opponents. To put it one way, 'minor' opponents are suddenly very demanding, and what you have to do is face each game thinking that we are playing against the best. Today, that is the point we try to make the most. In short, play against Cuba, Martinique in the same way we can do with Canada, Panama and the United States."

Regardless of what Martino says, Martinique is not the U.S. or Canada. It is a French territory not eligible for FIFA membership. Les Matinino have played seven games since the start of 2018 and have won just three of their 17 Gold Cup matches to date. One of those three, though, came on Wednesday via a 3-0 win over Cuba.

But, to some Mexico players, this game may as well be seen as a top-level clash as it is essentially an audition.

The injury to Erick Gutierrez leaves El Tri without one of its key midfield pieces for what may end up being the rest of the Gold Cup, though Martino has started six different midfielders in the two games thus far and Andres Guardado is an obvious replacement.

The attack and defense, though, have remained mostly unchanged, and a game like Sunday's would offer Martino a chance to rest a player like Raul Jimenez, who remains far and away the most important attacker on the team. Resting Jimenez opens the door for someone like Alexis Vega, who made his first Mexico appearance in March and scored his first goal off the bench in the lopsided win over Cuba.

Even if Jimenez starts again, Martino may hope El Tri notches an early lead and can rotate him out quickly.​ Guardado himself also do with a rest after starting the opening match and coming off the bench early against Canada to spark El Tri following Gutierrez's injury.

Other lingering injury issues also remain a factor. Linchpin Edson Alvarez missed the first match of the tournament after suffering a knee injury against Venezuela. Carlos Salcedo is still dealing with a lingering knee issue that hampered his Liguilla with Tigres and kept him out of Mexico's lineup against Canada too. 

There are also the potential returns of familiar faces in Hector Moreno and Rodolfo Pizarro to contend with, giving Martino the option of shuffling the deck a bit with one eye on the knockout stage.

"Whether it's the Gold Cup, Copa America or World Cup, players play at the end of a long season and sometimes we do a little more analysis on whether it's a lot or little activity," Martino said. "It is true that the coaches, when we have the players with the national team, we want to do everything in a single day and sometimes we have to respect the times.

"In addition, it's true that everything that has happened is not exclusively related to muscle injuries. We have had different types of injuries and fortunately, beyond this Erick injury, we can say that there are many who have recovered in a very favorable time, mainly thanks to the work of the medical team.

"Because, at the time, what happened to Carlos Salcedo and Edson Alvarez are quite similar injuries to the one we had with Hector, injuries that we did not know for sure which way we were going to be able to have the players. I can say that even with the training that Hector Moreno did this morning, they have been able to do it with the whole group."

Martino was not quick to reveal any lineup secrets and his counterpart, Martinique boss Mario Bocaly, said the same. Bocaly said that he would gladly reveal his lineup to the world the moment Martino did, adding that his side sees a clash with Mexico as an opportunity to not just push on for a knockout round spot but prove itself on the biggest stage North America has to offer.

That's Martinique's opportunity. Mexico's is different. Instead, Martino and El Tri have the chance to reassess and drive competition for places forward with the knockout rounds looming.

"The first thing we do is try to choose the best team that we understand that has to be presented tomorrow," Martino said ahead of Sunday's clash. "The physical problems we have had, and still suffer today, added to the fatigue of travel and games we have ahead impact the selection of the team, but we always try to put the best team together in each encounter."