What Mexico's win means for Brazil clash
GUADALAJARA -- A nation breathing a huge sigh of relief.
That's how Mexico's 1-0 victory over Cameroon on Friday feels the morning after.
"El Tri relieves pressure; dominates Cameroon," read the headline in one Guadalajara newspaper. Another was: "Super Tri-umph."
The win against the African nation provided answers to lingering questions about the nature of this Mexico side and its potential at Brazil 2014. Most importantly, it handed El Tri three points to guarantee that both remaining Group A games, against Brazil and Croatia, will be competitive affairs with something at stake.
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Also, the victory saved Mexico the embarrassment of being the first team to limp out of the tournament, which was the secret fear of every Mexico fan who had looked closely enough at the fixture list and realized a poor start against Cameroon followed by a match against hosts Brazil could spell major trouble.
Such negative thoughts might seem exaggerated now, but before the game, Mexico had never defeated an African opponent at a World Cup, and no one was quiet sure which version of El Tri would show up. Would it be a performance in line with the Olympic 2012 gold medal final, in which El Tri pressed and harried opponents and deservedly overcame a superior Brazil side? Or would it be the Mexico of 2013, which was divided, lacking confidence and in utter shambles when the pressure was on in qualifying?
On this day, it was much nearer the former. The performance left a pleasant taste.
Mexico might be a long way from being the best team at this World Cup, but there was a gritty honesty about Friday's display. What nation's fans wouldn't enjoy a side that work so hard, with stats showing the team covered much more ground than its opponents, and had 58 percent possession, which they used to score three goals (even if two were incorrectly ruled out)?
Man of the match Giovani Dos Santos -- a player known more for his flair than work ethic -- clocked up almost 10 kilometers as a striker, and the much-maligned Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez had more touches than anyone else on the pitch over the 90 minutes.
In midfield, Hector Herrera was everywhere, as was Andres Guardado, stifling Cameroon's intent and laying the platform for Mexico's domination.
The play was also fluid. It came down both flanks and with intricate one-touch passing through the middle, such as during Oribe Peralta's 61st-minute goal. Even the quiet Guillermo Ochoa in goal got his chance for glory with a solid, late save.
The Mexican team now somehow makes sense, and there is a context, following Brazil's 3-1 victory against Croatia on Thursday. Mexico's task is much clearer, and there is a path out of Group A.
Win against Brazil or Croatia, and Mexico is in the Round of 16 and potentially 90 minutes away from its stated goal of the quarterfinal for the first time since 1986 -- and the first time ever outside of Mexico.
It was noticeable that the #QuieroCreer ("I want to believe") hashtag, which the Mexican Federation has been promoting in recent weeks, has now been changed to #YaCreo ("I now believe").
The change neatly sums up where El Tri is after the Cameroon win.
Not that either of Mexico's remaining group games will be easy. Bookmakers have Mexico as outsiders for both of the matches, despite the positives from El Tri's opener.
A performance of equal or more tenacity will be required against Brazil, with defending from set pieces again something Herrera has to look at and practice on the training ground in the coming days.
Hector Herrera, Guardado and Jose Juan Vazquez will have to rest and be prepared to work just as hard to not let Brazil's talented attacking players such Neymar, Oscar and Hulk receive the ball deep with space to run at Mexico's slow defense.
El Tri also has the important disadvantage of having one fewer day to rest and prepare.
And Mexico had better hope for more breaks from the officials, with Dos Santos' two disallowed goals producing a wave of headlines worldwide about the standard of refereeing at the World Cup, coming as they did off the back of Brazil's dubious game-changing penalty against Croatia.
El Tri's starting XI will likely stay the same. There's no need to change things. The team functioned better than it has for any other game under Herrera. He deserves credit.
There are few guarantees from here on. But Mexico fans can at least be assured that their team will play with dedication and commitment.
When you look back at the qualifying campaign, that represents a giant stride for El Tri.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.