Mexico face biggest summer test in Confed Cup opener vs. Portugal
KAZAN, Russia -- Mexico doesn't face top international opponents outside of the home comforts of North America very often. CONCACAF qualifying, combined with the regular friendlies in the United States, mean it is often difficult to measure exactly where El Tri rates on the world stage at any given time.
On Sunday, when Mexico kicks off its Confederations Cup campaign against European champion Portugal, we'll get a rare insight into El Tri's status quo one year out from Russia 2018.
Have the team's issues from the Copa America Centenario been banished? Can Juan Carlos Osorio's squad deal with travel and the change in time zones to compete on equal footing with top European opposition? And just how will Mexico cope tactically with a strong Portugal side that's intent on taking this tournament very seriously and is more talented than El Tri up and down the teamsheet?
Both sides believe it will be an open affair, and Mexico against Portugal is undoubtedly the standout game of the first few days of the Confederations Cup.
"[These are] two quality national teams, and our opener is against Portugal, which is without doubt one of the favorites for the title," said Mexico defender Miguel Layun, who plays his club football in Portugal, on Thursday. "It'll be a nice game, and we've worked hard to get things right."
Cristiano Ronaldo's mere presence hangs over every Portugal game, and fans have been camped outside the team hotel since the team arrived on Wednesday, in contrast to the quieter surrounds of the Mexico camp. But Ronaldo has been the focus of attention, perhaps even more than usual these past few days.
News of the forward's tax issues in Spain and rumors that the 32-year-old may want to leave Real Madrid has sharpened the focus on him even more than usual.
"The only thing I can say about that is that he is motivated, focused on the national team and encouraging us to win the tournament," said AC Milan striker Andre Silva in a news conference on Friday.
Ronaldo has never played against El Tri, and the Mexican media have been firing questions about him to Mexico's players at every opportunity since the team arrived in Kazan on Tuesday. The stock response has been that Portugal is much more than Ronaldo and that if Mexico diverts all its attention to trying to stop the Real Madrid forward, El Tri will be in trouble given the substantial talents Portugal possesses elsewhere.
"Portugal has a great team, and then it has Ronaldo," was Porto player Layun's summary. But it was Mexico defender Carlos Salcedo who handed a clue about how El Tri will approach dealing with Ronaldo and Portugal's attack.
"My teammates can help me by having good possession of the ball," said Salcedo on Thursday. "We know these days that possession of the ball is the most important thing. Through that we will run less and defend less, so I think my teammates will be fired up to play a good game." If Mexico is bold, seeks possession and tries to be the protagonist in line with Osorio's philosophy, it will be a fascinating encounter against a Portugal team that won Euro 2016 in large part due to its defensive spine.
With Portugal coach Fernando Santos likely to field two centre-forwards in Ronaldo and Silva, Osorio could start three centre-backs in a 3-4-3 formation. And with Layun, Nestor Araujo, Andres Guardado and Rafa Marquez now back in the mix after injuries, Osorio has options.
If Osorio does go with a 3-4-3, Araujo would be on the right of the defense, with Diego Reyes in the center and Hector Moreno on the left. Salcedo and Layun would be the wing-backs (although Layun would push higher up than Salcedo) with Hector Herrera and Guardado in central midfield and Carlos Vela out right, Hirving Lozano out left and Javier Hernandez up front. Guillermo Ochoa appears set to keep his place in goal.
It's unlikely that captain Marquez will be risked from the start given he has played only 22 minutes since March 25 and is now 38 years old. Indeed, it is arguable that the Atlas defender is with the squad in Russia more for the leadership qualities and experience he brings than for what he can provide on the field.
Portugal, meanwhile, has no reported injury problems and Santos has an array of options, especially down the wings, although the message from the camp has been to keep feet on the ground despite being second favorite to win the tournament with the bookmakers.
"All players aim to go far and dream of raising trophies," said 21-year-old Silva, who has broken into the Portugal team this year. "I'm not running away from that, and I see myself lifting the trophy with my teammates, but there is a long road ahead, and we'll go from game to game."
"Are we favorites?" he added. "I can't agree. There are very strong national teams in this tournament."
Portugal will certainly be the favorite against Mexico. El Tri hasn't come out victorious in the previous three meetings and is nine places below Portugal in the FIFA rankings. Add to that the long trip Mexico made after last Sunday's draw against the United States in the Estadio Azteca, and tiredness could be a factor.
But it is the more difficult matches in which Osorio has come through, most notably last November's victory over the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, in World Cup qualifying.
Ronaldo and Portugal, however, are an altogether different proposition.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.