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May 15, 2006

El Tricolor target last sixteen

Mexico comfortably qualified for Germany, their fourth World Cup tournament in succession, by scoring an impressive 22 goals in 10 games in the final stage of the convoluted CONCACAF qualification process.

After successfully traversing the first two stages the fixtures computer dealt the Mexicans a difficult start to the final phase, starting in February 2005 with an away trip to Costa Rica and second game six weeks later at home to the USA.

However, El Tricolor proved to equal to the challenge, recording 2-1 wins over both their chief rivals in the group and so beginning an impressive march towards Germany.

A revenge defeat at the hands of US was not unexpected, but a 1-1 draw against lowly Panama was something of surprise. But just as the US had avenged their defeat to Mexico so El Tri made up for their embarrassing draw with Panama by thrashing them 5-0 in the return leg back in Mexico - a result which sealed their World Cup qualification with two games to spare.

In their final qualifier history will record that Mexico were defeated by Trinidad and Tobago, but it was a side which bore little resemblance to that which had previously inflicted important defeats to Costa Rica and the US.

Looking at Mexico's opponents in the Group D it is not unreasonable to expect that El Tricolor will make it though to at least the round of 16. Iran and Angola have the potential to prove tricky but the Mexicans will surely consider themselves too strong for both the Persians and the Africans.

The real challenge in the group stage will be Portugal who under the stewardship of Felipe Scolari will doubtless provide much sterner opposition when they meet in Gelsenkirchen on June 21st in what could be the group's deciding fixture.

Mexico's successful qualification for Germany not only marks their thirteenth appearance at the World Cup finals but arguably also represents their best chance for success.

Historically the Mexcians have somewhat flattered to deceive, although they have reached the quarter-finals twice, these last-sixteen bows came in 1970 and 1986 when El Tri were competing on home soil and enjoyed the considerable advantage of vociferous and vocal support.

Therefore if they are to reach the quarters for a third time it will be the first time they have done so outside of Mexico. However, their performance in 2005's Confederations Cup suggests it is not out of the question.

While the Confederations Cup is an event FIFA take pride in most see it as little more than an opportunity for the host nation to stage a dry-run of the World Cup without the scrutiny.

However, Mexico regarded their participation as an opportunity to gain experience of playing in Germany against high-calibre teams and to build team confidence ahead of the main event.

Although defeated in the semi-finals by Argentina defeat came on penalties and after their run in the competition had included a 1-0 victory over Brazil.

This allied to their impressive qualification run has resulted in Mexico's progression in FIFA's world rankings, where in 2005 the Mexicans were officially, in the eyes of the sport's governing body at least, the fifth best team in the world.

Spurious though the ranking system might be it does not alter the fact that such recognition has a positive effect on team moral. Not only do Mexico have a reputation as being hard to beat, the team believe they are hard to beat.

That is largely thanks to a squad which boasts an enviable mix of talented youth and seasoned experience.

For example, although a controversial choice, Argentine-born youngster Francisco Fonseca scored four times in 18 minutes in the 5-2 qualifying win over Guatemala.

La Volpe is a fascinating character who has managed to divide popular opinion in Mexico.

Consider the possibility of linking Fonseca with Jared Borgetti, Mexico's all-time leading goal-scorer and Mexico can lay claim to credible strike force.

Although Borgetti has not exactly set England's Premier League on fire since his £900,000 move to Bolton Wanderers in the January transfer window he remains a national hero back in Mexico.

In fairness to Borgetti he has not been offered much of a chance to prove himself in the Bolton side, though when given the opportunity he has shown his worth proving to be both a handful for defenders, especially aerially, as well as a competent finisher.

Despite any perceived shortcomings in his game over the last six months he will be a central figure for the Mexicans in Germany, and stung by criticism he is likely to be in the mood to prove his undoubted quality on the World Cup stage.

One player who will not be able to prove his quality in Germany is forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who coach Ricardo La Volpe opted not to include in his squad.

The decision was a controversial one with protestors marching on the headquarters of the Mexican Football Federation in protest at the omission of a player widely regarded as one of Mexico's most creative talents. Despite the considerable furore Mexico's bombastic coach, Ricardo La Volpe, stood by his decision.

La Volpe is a fascinating character who has managed to divide popular opinion in Mexico.

A World Cup winning player with Argentina in 1978, La Volpe has gained positive notices thanks to his favouring of an opening attacking style, however many Mexicans believe that it was a mistake to appoint a foreigner as national team coach - as such the Argentine has, it fair to say, not always enjoy a positive press and criticism of the decision to omit Blanco has not helped matters.

Such has been La Volpe's tempestuous relationship with the press that he has threatened to quit his role on a number of occasions, despite enjoying notable success on the pitch.

Lavolpe's future would be the big question for followers of Mexican football if the national team progress beyond the second round. If they fail to make it out for the groups stage there will be significant disappointment and his position will surely become untenable.