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Jun 7, 2014

Five things we learned: Mexico vs. Portugal

Bruno Alves scored a powerful header in stoppage time to give Portugal a 1-0 victory over Mexico.

Up until the final minute of the 1-0 loss to Portugal, Mexico had a lot of positives to take out of the match. The moment that Portugal captain (in Cristiano Ronaldo's absence) Bruno Alves struck the header that led to El Tri's defeat, those positives did not disappear, but were perhaps diminished somewhat. Here are the top five lessons learned.

1. Portugal is not the same team without Cristiano Ronaldo

It will come as a shock to no one that arguably the world's best player has a measurable impact on how well his team plays. Portugal wasn't as aggressive a squad without him; Mexico actually had the majority of the possession throughout the match. Numerous times that Portugal broke on a counter attack, the player with the ball seemed to hesitate slightly, not sure how to decide the best option for a pass. With Ronaldo as a possibility, that choice gets much easier because of his speed and dribbling ability, while on set plays, he can turn any dead ball into a threat on goal.

This match may have been Mexico holding its own against the fourth best team in the world for much of the night, but that has to be taken with a pinch of salt when the team doesn't have Ronaldo. Portugal is still a good team, but definitely not as good. Thus, Mexico's dominance in certain aspects of the game can be deceiving.

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2. Mexico's creative ability is going to give other teams in the World Cup trouble

Portuguese coach Paulo Bento explained after the game: "Mexico has lots of technical quality and we struggled a little bit in the beginning of the match to defend their attacks."

Part of the reason that Mexico has been more effective in attacking from midfield is that Miguel Herrera has given other players the green light to create and execute attacks. Miguel Layun had the most shots for El Tri on the night. He was part of a cadre of Mexico players keeping Portugal's goalkeeper Eduardo busy all night. One shot by Layun from distance had Eduardo tumbling backwards to punch away the ball, barely making the save.

Hector Herrera has also displayed more creative flair going forward of late and said: "I had two clear chances tonight, and I have to keep my head up and finish those better."

He gave credit to his coach in trusting the ability of his players and boosting their own belief in themselves, adding: "Obviously, if a coach shows confidence in you, on the field, you feel more free and that gives you confidence to try things without fear of failure or punishment."

His statement might be a bit of an insight into how coaches before Miguel Herrera dealt with players at times, but it also makes it clear that El Tri's current boss has used positive reinforcement to bring out the best in his players.

3. Mexico is realistic, but optimistic going into the World Cup

Though this loss featured more the lineup Miguel Herrera is expecting to start for him in Brazil, he wasn't too dismayed by the close loss, though he was frustrated at the lack of execution in some of the shots. "We had good opportunities, but we didn't finish them well," he said after the game. "We held the ball well, we penetrated, we created attacks. It was good practice for us. We're calm about the result, because ultimately, this was a friendly."

As to what the team looks to accomplish in the World Cup, Herrera was forthright, yet focused: "At a minimum, what we have in mind as an objective with the federation is to play in a fifth game. Then we can see that the World Cup as a success. If we get there, we'll have defeated some great teams, and that's a positive trajectory for us."

It's interesting to note that Herrera is establishing a standard for his squad that could easily put him out as coach if it is not met, but that doesn't seem to be his concern at all. Instead of worrying about protecting his job, Miguel Herrera's pushing his team to reach new heights.

4. Mexico is finishing stronger than it is starting.

It may seem contrary to the final result, given the last minute goal, but it was a strong second half for El Tri. Mexico's players have shown good ability to adjust and improve in the final half of matches.

"That's when we had our clearest chances," Hector Herrera affirmed.

Miguel Herrera agreed: "We had more of the ball in the second half and we did a lot with it, except score a goal."

Though it wasn't in the case this time, usually teams that play better as time goes on are more fit and fluid in figuring out how best to adjust to opponents. That bodes well.

5. Competition for places is still hot

Though the match against Portugal featured those on Mexico's squad who will probably start against Cameroon, those spots aren't as settled as some might imagine. In the back and up top, competition rages on for starting positions.

Miguel Herrera admitted that striker Oribe Peralta isn't playing at his best level for El Tri right now, but Herrera likes his attitude and work ethic. Javier Hernandez has performed well, but hasn't scored; Gio Dos Santos hasn't been entirely convincing, either. Herrera acknowledged that he is still considering who works together best as an attacking force up top.

Also to the surprise of some -- because many assumed Herrera would stick with Jesus Corona in goal -- the coach has admitted that he is still considering Guillermo Ochoa as a starter between the posts. Though Ochoa suffered in the goal from Portugal, realistically, his defense let him down on that play. He actually has more total saves than Corona in the recent preparation matches.

"I'm calm," said Ochoa about the uncertainty of who would win the starting position. "I'm happy that I've worked hard and done all I can do."

Instability can affect team unity if players can't stay professional about losing out to a teammate. However, when players feel a coach is fair in assessing who is in the best form, competition for spots can be a good thing, since players can push each other to really perform at a higher level of excellence.