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Replacing Chicharito: Can Raul Jimenez become the forward Mexico needs?

19:45 GMT 14/11/2018
Raul Jimenez Mexico
The 27-year-old is excelling at Wolves this season. Does he have what it takes to fill the void at forward for El Tri?

Mexico interim manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti had tried to send him home, yet there Raul Jimenez was on the training ground in Nashville, Tennessee.

Jimenez was to stay fresh for Premier League play with Wolves rather than take on the United States in a friendly on September 11, just days after matching up against a Uruguay back line made up in part by Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez. So, rather than taking part as an attacker, Jimenez slipped on the gloves and played goalkeeper during drills that included Ferretti himself having a few shots on Jimenez's net.

The episode served to show more about Jimenez's desire to be involved in the national team going forward than a potential position switch. When he plays against Argentina in this FIFA window, he'll become one of two Mexico players to make the 2018 World Cup roster and play in September, October and November for El Tri, along with PSV midfielder Erick Gutierrez. There is no question the 27-year-old feels that it's his time with the national team.

For most of his career, he's been overshadowed by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, the all-time leading scorer for the Mexico national team, and a player who despite his ups and downs in Europe generally was in a better club situation than Jimenez was ever since the latter moved from America to Atletico Madrid in a deadline-day deal that smelled of panic more than of desire from Atleti. His time in Spain bore little fruit, and while he found a home at Benfica even there he was largely a super-sub.

This season has been freeing for Jimenez. Deemed surplus for Benfica, he was loaned to England's largest Portuguese club Wolves where Nuno Espirito Santo has put his confidence in the Mexico international. Jimenez has been part of eight of the club's dozen goals so far this campaign, with three goals and five assists. 

As other World Cup veterans have stayed away from the national team for various reasons, Jimenez has been at every camp despite a heavy workload in the Premier League. No, the question is not whether or not Jimenez feels it's his time with the national team. The question remains whether or not the national team can count on him. 

Mexico needs a forward to emerge. There are two Mexicans in the top 15 in scoring in Liga MX. One is a midfielder. Chicharito has not been involved with the national team recently, and even if he returns soon, it's a stretch to imagine him on the field at the 2022 World Cup as a 34-year-old.

Hirving Lozano and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona have plenty of talent and promise but play on the wings. Jimenez can slot in as a No. 9, but he hasn't always been able to find the back of the net in the green of El Tri.

When he has scored, they've often been from the penalty spot, where Jimenez has an excellent ratio, or golazos coming out of nowhere, like the overhead kick he scored against Panama in 2014 World Cup qualification to keep Mexico alive in its journey toward Brazil.

These friendly matches have been a chance for Jimenez to take his opportunities, but both goals he's scored have come from the penalty spot. Jimenez always seems to be on the verge but has yet to break through as a consistent scorer for the national team.

Some of that has been a lack of playing time or being played in a role with which he's not familiar, but other times Jimenez simply hasn't performed. He's never scored more than three goals in a calendar year for El Tri, though a pair of goals in Argentina this month would change that.

The good news for Mexico's next manager is that Jimenez's time at Wolves is turning him into a central forward who knows exactly how to play with other talented players around him. He's not a pure goalscorer like Chicharito, who got into the right spots and could finish off nearly anything. He is, however, much more adept at bringing other players into the play or serving as the pivot for a one-two from a teammate. Those are the types of plays that could lead to Mexico's best chances in the future with Lozano and Corona able to use their speed and technical ability to work with Jimenez.

For years there's been a loud segment of the Mexico fan base that was done with Chicharito and wanted to see Jimenez get his shot. The time has come, and the Wolves forward is doing everything he can to prove he can become the starter Mexico needs at forward for the foreseeable future.