- Known for his tinkering and experimentation, Juan Carlos Osorio has called in largely a full-strength squad for Mexico's final World Cup qualifiers despite El Tri already having its place booked in Russia.
Despite the fact that Mexico has already booked its ticket to next year's World Cup, Juan Carlos Osorio knows full well that good form in the qualifiers doesn’t necessarily dictate good form in Russia.
If anything, if Mexico's 2014 qualifying campaign is an indicator, qualifying form means absolutely nothing for the main event. Four years ago, El Tri scraped by in the Hexagonal and qualified for the World Cup in Brazil after a playoff victory over New Zealand. It inspired little confidence heading into the tournament, and after the group draw yielded Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon, many fans and pundits thought El Tri would be lucky to get out of the opening stage, let alone do well.
As it turned out, Mexico advanced to the knockout stage undefeated, beating Croatia and Cameroon and drawing 0-0 with Brazil. Suffering a controversial, narrow and heart-breaking loss against the Netherlands in the round of 16 was not the ending it wanted, but at least El Tri earned a little bit of respect back thanks to a hard-fought tournament.
In the beautiful game, form and attitude dictate much of what can happen in a major tournament, and for Osorio, ever the strategist, it all begins with chemistry. In order to succeed in Russia, this team needs to take advantage of every possible situation when congregated together, so it’s no surprise how he envisions these qualifiers, despite nothing immediately tangible at stake. The squad he has called up for the last two matches is a strong unit, filled with experience and abroad-based players.
West Ham’s Javier Hernandez and Porto’s Miguel Layun, Hector Herrera, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona and Diego Reyes are all included for matches against Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. Real Betis's in-form Andres Guardado is also included, as well as Benfica’s Raul Jimenez and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, who has lit up the Dutch league with PSV, scoring six goals in six matches.
In total, there are 12 members who play in Europe, with the remainder of the squad coming from Liga MX.
It’s also worth noting that only four changes from September’s qualifiers were made with the aforementioned Layun, Carlos Salcedo, Oribe Peralta and Oswaldo Alanis replacing Jair Pereira, Orbelin Pineda, Jesus Dueñas and Jurgen Damm (due to injury.)
Osorio is done with roster experimentation. This is about reaching 24 points in the Hexagonal and improving as a unit. Nothing less.
"The team can't relax," said León’s Elias Hernandez, who impressed during the Gold Cup, at a news conference on Monday. "We are very committed and we want to finish [the Hex] in first place. It is very important to get six points."
Friday’s match against Trinidad & Tobago will be an emotional affair as the tragic effects of the recent Mexico City earthquake, which so far has claimed a death toll of 360 people, will be on everyone’s mind. The fixture will be played at San Luis's Estadio Alfonso Lastras, and for the national team this is the first competitive match played outside of Estadio Azteca since 2012.
There is no doubt, however, that it will be an electric atmosphere given the fact that it’s a much smaller stadium, calling for a much more intimate affair.
Many players such as Javier Hernandez, Layun, and brothers Giovani and Jonathan Dos Santos have started campaigns for several organizations to help the earthquake victims, and last week Mexico’s soccer federation (FMF) announced that it would donate almost $400,000 for reconstruction costs across the country.
Back on the pitch, qualifiers are only part of the puzzle. Whereas in November 2013 Mexico was fighting for its World Cup life, four years later it has the luxury of preparing to face the best. Mexico will test itself against high-quality opposition when it travels to Europe and faces the fifth- (Belgium) and sixth- (Poland) ranked teams in FIFA's most recent standings to finish off the calendar year.
Belgium’s path to Russia has been somewhat similar to Mexico, as Roberto Martinez’s squad also qualified for the World Cup without losing a single match. In fact, the squad won every match aside from a 1-1 draw with Greece back in March. This will no doubt be the challenge Osorio has been craving, as his team will have to face players with Premier League pedigree such as Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and the presently unstoppable Romelu Lukaku.
Poland, meanwhile, leads its qualifying group with only one loss, and is led by another star center forward, Robert Lewandowski. Last year, Adam Nawałka’s team reached the quarterfinals of UEFA’s European championship before losing in penalties to eventual champion Portugal.
Against this level of opposition, the biggest task for Osorio and Mexico will be improving defensively. From what we saw in the Confederations Cup, the biggest issue for Mexico is what to do immediately after losing possession. But these friendlies are also about matching up physically with two teams who boast two of the best strikers in the world.
Ultimately, it will provide a great opportunity to learn how far Mexico has improved since the beginning of the summer, but more importantly, they will expose Osorio’s final tasks and illuminate what he needs to correct in order get El Tri past the World Cup’s round of 16 for the first time since 1986.