Let’s not sugarcoat it. Mexico has a tough road for next summer’s World Cup.
It’s not entirely catastrophic, but for manager Juan Carlos Osorio and his talented squad, getting out of the group stage and avoiding a round of 16 exit for the seventh straight World Cup will be a slightly tougher challenge than expected. Placed in Group F alongside Sweden, Korea Republic and, most notably, four-time and defending champion Germany, El Tri may see an opportunity to move past the first three matches, but to win the group? That’s a big ask.
The journey starts against Germany on June 17 in Moscow, followed by a date with South Korea in Rostov on June 23, and a finale against Sweden (with or without Zlatan Ibrahimovic) four days later in Yekaterinburg.
If Mexico moves on, then it will face the winner or runner-up of Group E (Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia) and smart money would be on Germany winning the group, meaning that Osorio might have to deal with another giant, Brazil, in the knockout stage.
“This is a complicated situation, now in the same group as the current champions (Germany), but it’s doable,” legendary Mexican striker Jared Borgetti told SI.com Friday. “But I think the key here, will be the other two matches. We have a great opportunity to go through, but we have to be prepared, and more importantly, get results in the other two matches.”
Borgetti, who was Mexico's all-time leading goal scorer with 46 goals until Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez passed him earlier this year, has great optimism in Mexico’s chances, but it’s all about taking it one game at a time. Even if El Tri has to face Brazil, nothing is set in stone, as Borgetti is quick to remind all that Mexico's recent record against the Seleção is not as bad as many would think (it's 7-5-3 in their last 15 meetings dating back to 1999, 10-22-7 all-time).
“In the past we’ve had good results against them, including the draw back in 2014, so not all is lost," Borgetti said. "Granted, this is a much stronger Brazil, playing so well with players like Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus, so it’s complicated. But we must focus and take it one match at a time.”
Borgetti, now an analyst for ESPN Deportes, also has faith in Osorio, and believes much of the good work and improvement could be seen from this summer’s Confederations Cup, where Mexico was tested against tough opposition such as Germany and Portugal.
“Osorio passed early tests of criticism, and he has done a good job," Borgetti said. "You can question his decisions, but results are what matter, and he’s done well. Let’s remember, there are many people who want him as their own manager.”
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The 4-1 semifinal loss to Germany in the Confederations Cup was particularly useful because it helped El Tri learn how different things will be at the World Cup as opposed to CONCACAF qualifiers, which, this time around, Mexico navigated with relative ease.
“I don’t care what anyone says, that wasn’t a German ‘B’ team," Borgetti said. "Germany is Germany, and Mexico learned many things. Against Portugal too, they played well.”
But the reality is that in the World Cup Germany will arrive with a fully loaded squad and with even more talent than Leon Goretzka and Timo Werner, who took on larger roles on Jogi Low's largely second-choice roster this past summer.
The silver lining is that Mexico has also improved since the summer. In recent friendlies in Europe, it went goal-for-goal with powerful Belgium in a 3-3 draw and beat Pot 1 side Poland 1-0, and the hope is that the level of quality within the squad will be even higher by the time June 17 comes around.
Borgetti stresses, however, the importance of the other two matches and how no matter what happens against the 2014 World Cup champions, there must be no room for error against Sweden and South Korea.
Given the fact that the quality in international football has improved, Borgetti also believes that you will see a more competitive World Cup, where the gap between a favorite and a sleeper narrows down.
“I think this will be a well-balanced World Cup where many teams have a chance of winning it all. From Brazil and Germany to Argentina and Leo Messi, we’re going to see an even tournament. More so than before.”
As for Mexico, opening against Germany could be a good thing, if subscribing to Borgetti's cautious optimism. The toughest test will be out of the way early, and the foundation for what Osorio and the team needs to do the rest of the way will be laid. And if Mexico is able to net a point or three in Moscow, then its launchpad to the knockout stage could be set. For a meticulous manager like Osorio, the fact that he has over six months to prepare for Die Mannschaft could wind up working out in the end.