There has been good news for Mexico during the Confederations Cup this week, but little of it has come from any of the match outcomes in Brazil. Victories for the USA over Honduras and Costa Rica over Panama have kept Mexico in the third automatic qualifying slot from the Concacaf hexagonal, but the team's own form continues to frustrate.
There is nothing shameful about losing to Italy and Brazil and if that were all there was to it, there'd be little reason for concern. The problem is context. Mexico has now won just one of its last 11 games -- admittedly eight draws mean it was unbeaten in nine before the tournament -- but the sense of optimism stimulated by its success in last July's Olympic Games has all but evaporated. The crispness and rhythm of the team's performance in London last summer has been replaced by sluggishness, despite the fact that six of the players who faced Brazil on Wednesday were in that same Olympic squad.
As Mexico's coach Jose Manuel de la Torre has admitted, this is a side desperately short on confidence and so plays without fluidity. Everything seems to be an effort; nothing is automatic. Doubt lurks around every corner. In such circumstances, playing the hosts in an atmosphere of intense passion is even more of a challenge than it would be for a team at the top of its form: it's little wonder that Mexico adopted a safety-first approach, refusing to cast caution aside when down 1-0 in the final stages, even though it seemed defeat would almost certainly mean elimination. It preferred narrow, face-saving defeat to the possibility of utter embarrassment.
Perhaps it's unfair to be too critical of a side cast as patsies for Brazil to express itself against. In the first 15 minutes, Brazil was sensational and for Mexico the game became purely about survival. There had been talk that the crowd might turn its back on the Brazilian anthem as a demonstration of solidarity with the demonstrators protesting in the streets outside about the cost of staging the tournament, but instead it was belted out with spine-tingling gusto. That set the tone for a ferocious assault from the off, and for a time it seemed Mexico might be blown away. Mexico conceded one goal, lashed in by Neymar after Francisco Rodriguez had only half-cleared a Dani Alves cross. At that stage, Brazil was irresistible, pouring forward and tearing into challenges with a patriotic fervor.
When a team attacks with that sort of fury, there is little the other side can do. Mexico perhaps would feel that Andres Guardado and Gerardo Flores could have done more to stem the forward surges of Dani Alves and Marcelo from full-back, and would wonder why the back four were left exposed quite so often -- something that the use of two midfield shields in Gerardo Torrado and Carllos Salcido should have prevented -- but essentially all it could do was cling on and hope that when the storm passed, the damage it left wasn't irreparable.
And once Brazil had blown itself out, Mexico, aided by Brazilian sloppiness, came back into the game. The problem it had was that it was set up not to concede, and so, having already fallen behind, wasn't best set up to force a way back into the game. What it did well was to drive Hulk and Neymar back, to force them to defend by advancing the full-backs. That, of course, is only possible if the center holds and achieves something at least approaching parity of possession: eventually Torrado and Salcido did that well, although it was never quite clear how much that improvement was Mexico actually playing better or Brazil just becoming complacent.
What it struggled with, though, was creating chances. Hiram Mier put one effort just wide having dispossessed Oscar following an initial error by Marcelo but, that aside, it was very reliant on Giovanni Dos Santos for inspiration. He worked hard, and drifted right behind Marcelo to pose danger, but his monopoly on flair meant Mexico's threat was intermittent. Goalscoring has generally been a problem over the past year, the last 10 games yielding just seven goals. Dos Santos created one second half chance with a deft ball to Guardado, whose low cross was cut out by David Luiz before it could reach Javier Hernandez, but it was only after Hector Herrera had come on that there was anything like a consistent menace to the Brazilian goal. The result was a couple of half-chances before a darting run from Neymar teed up Jo to settle the game.
If Mexico beats Japan in the final game -- something that will be far from easy, given how well Japan played against Italy, it will perhaps consider the tournament a success: two narrow defeats against giants of the world game and one morale-boosting victory. Given its mental state, maybe that was all it could hope for anyway. But that seems a desperately curtailed ambition for a team that a year ago looked as though it could be World Cup quarterfinalists or better. A good team is in there somewhere: Mexico just needs to rediscover its snap and sparkle.
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