El Tri needed a playoff win over New Zealand to make the 2014 World Cup. After starting the Hex with a win this time around, Mexico could dominate the group.
PANAMA CITY — It’s sort of easy to forget just how close Mexico was to missing the 2014 World Cup. Well, it’s sort of easy to forget just how close Mexico was to missing the World Cup until you spend a little time in Panama.
Fans here hope Tuesday’s sold-out qualifier won’t be another in a long line of frustrations that have come at Mexico’s hands – directly or indirectly. The 2015 Gold Cup semifinal still stings, but it’s nothing like that final day of qualification in 2013 when Graham Zusi’s stoppage-time goal for the United States against Panama dropped the Canaleros out of the playoff spot and put Mexico back in. El Tri made quick work of New Zealand in the playoff, rolled into the 2014 World Cup and were perhaps a penalty call away from finally getting to a fifth game at the World Cup.
Of course, that came just four days after Raul Jimenez’s stunning bicycle kick salvaged three points for Mexico against Panama, where a draw obviously would’ve swung things in a different direction.
But this time around, Mexico is well-situated to avoid any sort of last-day scare and roll through the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. No team started the Hex off with six points last time around, but Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica find themselves a win away from doing just that.
Starting off the Hex with two road wins would be a stark contrast to the two points Mexico limped out of its opening two matches with in 2013, with the shocking draw against Jamaica a rough start for El Tri. Mexico’s issue ahead of 2014 wasn’t too many defeats – it was too many draws that should’ve turned into wins. And while coach Juan Carlos Osorio said that there were challenges in the fourth round, he’s under no false impression that the Hex will be easy.
“We thought that the four-team groups to start were difficult, but the most difficult still is this Hexagonal,” Osorio said. “The teams that qualified from all of these groups are there, and obviously the demand is much greater and the pressure is higher for everybody.”
Beating Panama would make things much easier for Mexico, of course. The next two matches see Costa Rica visit and a trip to Trinidad and Tobago. That could produce at least four points and bring Mexico a result away from matching the poor performance in the last cycle after four matches.
However, Panama won’t roll over easily. The team has a mix of experienced veterans, even with Felipe Baloy and Armando Cooper suspended because of yellow card accumulation. Blas Perez will still cause issues up top, and Fidel Escobar and his likely center-back partner Roman Torres are threats on set pieces, as Honduras learned when Escobar scored the winner in Panama’s victory over Los Catrachos on Friday. What Osorio is looking at most, though, seems to be the quick transition from defense to attack that manager Hernan Gomez’s men are able to execute, putting teams on the back foot when there are poor passes or easy giveaways as there were in Mexico’s win over the United States.
But don’t mistake that concern about what Panama does well for a cautious approach. Mexico will go for this game, knowing that three points would put the team on its way to potential Hex dominance.
“It’s the best and most beautiful chance we have to start with six points from six possible. Obviously either of the two national teams that might get the points will have a lot of confidence they can use to face the future,” Mexico forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez said at a news conference Monday. “In no match with (Osorio) or any other manager have we said that we’ll be happy with a draw or that it will be good. We always go out to get three points, to win. Obviously with the respect due to the other team, but on the field we’ll leave everything out there to get the points.”
Osorio echoed the same idea, saying that getting to six points will be Mexico’s ultimate target.
“Our idea is directly related with the courage of the Mexican player to go out and look for the game, to attack, to go after the opposing goal and we’re calm,” the coach said. “But this isn’t to say that we don’t have respect. On the contrary, we deeply respect all the opponents in the Hexagonal, in this case Panama.”
The respect is necessary, but a win for Mexico would put it well on the road to Russia and help to forget all about the 2014 cycle – at least until the next time it visits Panama.