Mexico can breathe a bit easier now.
After a 5-1 victory over New Zealand, Mexico is 90 non-catastrophic minutes away from securing its place at Brazil and ending a "will-they, won't-they" qualifying saga that has been anything but expected. Oribe Peralta scored twice after Paul Aguilar and Raul Jimenez broke the game open, and Rafa Marquez capped the scoring for El Tri before Chris James pulled back an away goal for the All Whites.
Regardless, Mexico is looking good to join the USA, Costa Rica and Honduras as CONCACAF entrants in the World Cup draw next month.
Here are three thoughts on Mexico's romp at Azteca:
Mexico looked like Mexico again -- One of the most confounding things about Mexico's terrible 2013 was its inability to display much, if any, creativity in attack. Throughout qualifying, Mexico teams struggled to break down opposing defenses, consistently failed to build up their signature rhythmic possession in midfield, and in the few instances where they had scoring chances, they couldn't finish.
Against New Zealand, for the first time in what seemed like ages, there was a real understanding among the players on the field in a Mexico uniform. Midfield combinations were crisp and quick, and New Zealand struggled to deal with the darting runs of forwards Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez. In the back, Rafa Marquez led a unit that easily snuffed out just about everything New Zealand had to offer going forward (which admittedly wasn't much).
Temporary boss Miguel Herrera was mocked in some quarters due to his squad selection -- the Club América manager refused to call in any foreign-based players, and instead made El Tri a virtual facsimile of the club side he built into LigaMX Apertura champions. By club, Mexico's starting XI against New Zealand looked like this: América, América, León, América, América, América, América, León, León, América, Santos Laguna.
A highly unusual move for a nation of Mexico's stature in the world of soccer, for sure. But it worked. Finally playing in a system where all were comfortable, Mexico got its mojo back -- the only thing that mattered in a do-or-die playoff series.
New Zealand looked terrible -- As much as Mexico might have improved, the fact of the matter is New Zealand handed the hosts every opportunity to take control of this playoff series. The signs came early, when goalkeeper Glen Moss was forced into a series of outstanding saves off set piece opportunities -- supposedly the one area where New Zealand might have a noticeable advantage over the Mexicans.
Things only got worse from there. Paul Aguilar's opener came after Moss and defender Andrew Durante collided with each other while going after the same cross, leaving the goal wide open for a tap-in. Jimenez easily headed in the second after being left wide open at the goal post on a free kick from the wing.
Peralta scored the third of the game (and his seventh in his last seven games for Mexico) after Marquez's cross-field ball to Miguel Layún unsettled the Kiwi back three. The defense then allowed Peralata to waltz into the box and finish Layún's square ball easily. That was just the first half. Peralta's second strike in the 80th minute on a well-placed header and Marquez's late tally simply sealed what seemed inevitable.
The absence of New Zealand's best defender Winston Reid due to injury surely contributed to these epic breakdowns, but things weren't much better further up the field either. Time and time again, New Zealand midfielders got caught with the ball under their feet, unable to do things as simple as controlling, getting a clean touch and completing a pass under pressure. Everything the team did -- including their sloppy consolation goal in the 86th minute -- could have been accurately soundtracked by Yakety Sax:
These intercontinental playoffs might need a re-think. -- Combined with Uruguay's 5-0 domination of Jordan in the Middle East, the FIFA intercontinental playoffs are now 0-for-2 when it comes to providing exciting and evenly-matched games. Add another item to the laundry list of improvements FIFA should make to its competitions. One thing that could improve New Zealand's soccer program in the long run would be for the Kiwis to follow Australia's example and join the Asian confederation. The move hasn't prevented the Aussies from qualifying for the World Cup, and now when they arrive in Brazil they will have been repeatedly battle-tested against teams that are their equal, if not moreso. In this case, for a New Zealand team whose last two World Cup qualifiers came against the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia -- in March, no less -- an all-important couple of games against Mexico might be too steep a mountain to climb.