Mexico's World Cup spot is confirmed, so will they experiment vs. Costa Rica?
MEXICO CITY -- There will be no drama this time around. Mexico has officially qualified for Russia 2018 after they ground out a 1-0 win against Panama at the Estadio Azteca last Friday. With the pressure now fully off their shoulders, manager Juan Carlos Osorio could plainly focus on assessing how his players fare as they battle for a spot on the final roster.
Despite the accomplishment, Osorio wants to keep his foot on the gas, a natural reaction by the oft-criticized boss as he makes his return to the touchline following a six-game suspension that kept him out of the entire Gold Cup run earlier this summer, as well as the match against Panama. In San Jose, El Tri face a motivated Costa Rica team who knocked off the United States in their last match, giving the Americans their second home loss in the final round of World Cup qualifying, and putting los Ticos on the verge of securing their own place at Russia 2018.
The rivalry element between both teams could produce a better match than one potentially envisioned. Last March, Osorio bluntly stated in an interview with ESPN that "Costa Rica is not at our level" despite conceding the progress shown by the Central Americans in recent years. Meanwhile, after Panama defender Adolfo Machado's incendiary comments that Mexico is "living on their history" before last week's tilt, no such needling appears to be on the horizon for this upcoming clash.
Regardless, Costa Rica will want to reverse recent results against Mexico as they have just one win against El Tri dating back to 2002. Mexico has also had a relatively easy time winning in San Jose, with three of the last four matches in Costa Rica's capital going to the visitors.
Given his penchant for rotating players, it will be interesting to see what Juan Carlos Osorio presents in San Jose. In Mexico's 2-0 win at the Estadio Azteca over Costa Rica last March, Osorio went with five defenders, three in the middle and two on the wings, giving Rafael Marquez the freedom to move up and join the two central midfielders, Hector Herrera and Jonathan dos Santos, when needed. Up front, Javier Hernandez partnered with Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela was given free rein. This proved to be tactically sound as Vela provided Hernandez and Nestor Araujo with the game's two assists.
This time around, Marquez, Miguel Layun and Oribe Peralta were left off the roster. Starters Jurgen Damm, Jesus Corona and Vela were taken off in the second half of Friday's win but there's a good chance Osorio will switch his lineup almost entirely to face Costa Rica. During that clash, Mexico edged out Costa Rica in possession with just 53 percent of the ball going to the hosts as Panama pushed forward to close the gap in the second half.
Compare that to the 39 percent of the ball that los Ticos were entitled to last Friday against the United States, when they ceded possession to their opponents after going ahead 1-0 in the first half. In search of a counterattacking score towards the end of the game, the strategy worked to perfection as Marco Urena notched a second goal to firmly finish the contest. Though manager Oscar Ramirez played his full-strength side against the Americans in New Jersey, a win against Mexico will give Costa Rica passage to the World Cup, meaning the home team will likely face Mexico with a lineup quite similar to the one deployed last week.
No matter what the result on Tuesday, it is extremely likely Costa Rica will join Mexico in Russia next summer, capping another successful cycle for los Ticos, who have already made three of the last four World Cups, including a thrilling run in Brazil where they did not lose in regulation and bowed out in penalty kicks to eventual third place winners Netherlands.
For Mexico, the countdown to convince skeptics of Juan Carlos Osorio's style and his squad's substance ahead of the all-important tournament begins now.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.