Crucial week ahead as Mexico begins World Cup preparation in Europe
BRUSSELS -- You don't have to dig too far down to find a certain irony regarding Mexico's arrival at its Brussels hotel on Monday evening.
For friendly matches or group stage games of the Gold Cup in the United States, El Tri fans and the Mexican media horde require a barrier as the team is escorted into its hotel like conquering rock stars, whereas in Brussels -- for what is arguably Mexico's most difficult game of the year on Friday against Belgium -- there were just a few cameras and some perplexed onlookers.
It gave an early sense that Mexico's jaunt to Europe -- El Tri moves on from Belgium to face Poland next Monday -- will involve genuine away games, something Mexico rarely experience outside of the CONCACAF region. Indeed, these are the Mexican national team's first friendlies in Europe in three years. And they couldn't be much more difficult, which is exactly what Colombian head coach Juan Carlos Osorio wants.
Twenty-three of the 28 players in the Belgium squad play in the top five leagues in Europe -- England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France -- and that number would be higher if Atletico Madrid's Yannick Carrasco, Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini, Tottenham's Toby Alderweireld and Manchester City's Vincent Kompany were available.
"We've always talked about competition being a fundamental factor for human beings to improve and it's the same in football," said Osorio upon the team's arrival. "[The games are] going to show where we are at and what we need to improve."
Mexico's World Cup shirt presentation last week in Mexico City was a much flashier affair than that of Belgium a couple of days ago and the green shirt will surely outsell that of the European side by a significant margin. But while Mexico has no players at what you could describe as elite European clubs and only four -- Javier Hernandez, Hector Moreno, Carlos Salcedo, Andres Guardado, Carlos Vela -- in this squad from Europe's top five leagues, the Red Devils boast star players all over, with Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku just one possible forward line at coach Roberto Martinez's disposal.
You get the feeling the Belgium team is exactly what Osorio would like Mexico to become in terms of sheer quality and depth, with Martinez only picking two players from Belgium's first division.
As things are, Mexico is a firm underdog for these two games, although Osorio is looking on the bright side.
"It's a great opportunity for Mexican football to compete with two very high level national teams," Osorio said. "We've spent the last week analyzing and the fact that a high percentage of [Belgium's] players are in topsix clubs in the Premier League and all have opportunities and play internationally in the Champions League makes them very strong ... They are well coached and a high-level team."
Osorio will likely rotate between the games, especially with only two days between them. He painted Belgium as a possession-oriented side and Poland as much more direct, making it difficult to judge which players will be used, although it would make sense for Osorio to start the strongest possible side against Belgium.
The games will also be important for certain Mexican players and their futures ahead of the World Cup, with Giovani dos Santos' position in the squad under the spotlight once again and Jurgen Damm, Hugo Ayala, Jesus Gallardo and Rodolfo Cota all attempting to earn their places at Russia 2018.
The right center-back and holding midfield roles are still up in the air and in need of a fix before the World Cup. Hector Herrera could slot in as he has been doing, but the jury is out on whether he is the best player for the position when Mexico plays top opposition, while Diego Reyes hasn't convinced. At the back, Santos Laguna's Nestor Araujo is sure to start one of the games, but the really intriguing name in the mix is 20-year-old center-back Cesar Montes, who has huge potential but is still inexperienced at the international level.
The path to a "fifth game" at the World Cup, which has eluded Mexico since the 1986 tournament, doesn't depend on Mexico's results over the next seven days. But there is no denying that strong performances would send El Tri into December's World Cup draw and then the New Year with a sense of positivity. Osorio's legion of critics and doubters would be temporarily hushed.
Should Mexico lose both games, however, old wounds would be opened. While Mexico's record under Osorio has generally been very good, it has been brought down by things going wrong in big games against top opposition -- most obviously against Germany in the Confederations Cup last summer and against Chile the summer before that in the Copa America Centenario.
It really would be a long few months ahead of the next FIFA international break in March for Osorio if Mexico can't manage a result against Belgium or Poland, even if rationality suggests doing so will be a tough ask.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.