Five thoughts as Mexico all-but secure their place at Russia 2018
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- It's been another good camp for Mexico's national team, with a 2-0 win last Friday in Estadio Azteca against Costa Rica and Tuesday's 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain.
El Tri's record in World Cup hexagonal qualifying now reads four games played, 10 points gained, five goals scored and only one conceded. To add to that, three of the four games were away from home.
Things are looking up for Juan Carlos Osorio's team, which is quickly closing in on Russia 2018. Here's what came out of the last few days:
1. Mexico showing new steely streak
Put the trips to visit Marcelo Bielsa, Jorge Sampaoli, the philosophical speeches about "moral courage" and such from Osorio to the back of your mind.
Yes, they are important and related to how the coach ideally sees football. But when the Colombian needs to be, he is very much a pragmatist. Many will fault him for making so many changes against Trinidad and Tobago and dropping more technical players like Carlos Vela and Jonathan dos Santos, but no Mexico fan should be still under the false pretense that these CONCACAF away trips should be easy for the region's so-called "giant."
Fielding a total of four center-backs may have looked on paper, and felt at times during the game, like an exaggeration, but it worked on balance, despite the lack of aesthetically pleasing football on display from Mexico. And that perceived age-old weakness Mexico has of defending set pieces has been turned on its head (pardon the bad pun). Mexico has scored from set pieces in three of its last four official games.
"We analyzed previous games that had ended 3-3 and 4-4 and we decided three objectives," said Osorio in his post-game press conference in Port of Spain.
The first was to keep a clean sheet, the second was to control the Soca Warriors at set pieces and the third to counter the home side's direct style.
"We play smart," defender Moreno said after being asked by ESPN about what has changed in this qualifying campaign compared to Mexico's near-disastrous last one.
"Before all, we wanted to play was attacking and nice football, but sometimes it is difficult because everything is complicated in these kind of away games. The most important thing for us right now is to get points, to get the qualification [to the World Cup] as soon as possible and we are closer today."
2. Defensive solidity is improving
This is part of the same overall improvement in Mexico's solidity and part of Osorio's flexibility. There are two trends here. The first is for Mexico to try to dominate the ball and possession in order to stifle the opposition and force them back. We saw that against Costa Rica last Friday, with Dos Santos, Rafa Marquez and Hector Herrera in the central midfield spots dictating play.
Then there was the flipside against Trinidad and Tobago. The five changes Osorio made from the Costa Rica game changed the face of the side. Instead of controlling the game through hogging the ball, Mexico controlled key spaces on the pitch. Holding midfielders Jesus Molina and Diego Reyes and center-backs Nestor Araujo and Hector Moreno restricted the direct balls to Trinidad and Tobago's Kenwyne Jones. The home side had some joy down the wings in the first half, but Mexico "deserved the win," as Osorio put it after the match.
The other real positive on the defensive side over this week has been Araujo and Moreno's burgeoning partnership at the heart of the Mexican defense. They both completed 180 minutes over the two games and Mexico didn't concede a single goal.
3. Team spirit, mental toughness good
Don't discount the role of Spanish mental coach Imanol Ibarrondo has had on what Mexico has accomplished since last summer's 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa America. Time and space has been given to Ibarrondo for group sessions to strengthen the bond between the players and he attends every press conference and even watches on as the team is warming up.
The Mexican federation and Osorio should be praised for trying something a little different and exploring an area of the sport that is rightly receiving increased attention. Part of the work can be seen with victories in tough away venues like the United States, Honduras, El Salvador and now Trinidad and Tobago, but perhaps most important of all was winning and entertaining in an Estadio Azteca that has not been as kind to the Mexican national team of late.
4. Chicharito has got the monkey off his back
The relief after the goal Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez scored against Costa Rica told a story.
After nine months without a goal for El Tri, the celebration made it clear that leveling Jared Borgetti's goal-scoring record had been on his mind.
Now that he has reached the 46 goals to tie Borgetti, Hernandez should benefit from a boost in confidence. Once he gets back to Germany, it'll be important that Hernandez puts a difficult last six months behind him both on and off the field and closes the season with Bayer Leverkusen with confidence to propel him into June's qualifiers against Honduras and the United States and then on to the Confederations Cup in Russia.
5. Osorio will always divide, but the Colombian doesn't care
In the Mexico team hotel lobby in Port of Spain in the day preceding Tuesday's match, Osorio could be seen holding court talking to journalists, gesticulating furiously. After the game, he went to chat to a Trinidad and Tobago fan with a "Chicharito" shirt waiting by the team bus. And then there was the shaving of the coach's head following a bet with Hernandez.
Osorio completed 20 games in charge on Friday and is clearly relishing the experience of being Mexico national team manager. Obviously, everything is sweeter when the team is winning.
There will always be that 7-0 loss in the shadows, but the former Puebla coach's record is now 16 wins, three draws and that solitary, if devastating, defeat.
Osorio, in accordance with his obsessive nature, will be picking over the areas he can improve, but he has every right to leave Port of Spain with a feeling of satisfaction about how things have gone so far.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.