Managerless Mexico faces tough trip to Argentina, despite Messi's absence
Mexico has been desperate to play games on the road against tough opposition and, while Lionel Messi might not be with the Argentina squad, the upcoming matches against La Albiceleste on Friday (Cordoba) and Nov. 20 (Mendoza) will be stern tests to end the year for El Tri.
These past few months have been a kind of mini-cycle for Mexico's interim coach, Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti. Integral players such as Hector Herrera, Hector Moreno, Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado have been cast to one side. Whether it is temporary or not will depend on who the next permanent coach is, although there isn't any doubt that those four players would will walk into Mexico's strongest XI.
The theory goes that the Mexican national team will benefit from testing itself against tougher opposition, like playing away in Argentina.
"We know that we'll be away, with everything against us," winger Javier Aquino told reporters upon leaving Mexico City. "But we have the ability to compete anywhere, and Mexican football keeps growing."
Some of the players got an early test of what these trips to South America can be about. Erick Gutierrez, Raul Jimenez and others spent the day in Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport, stranded due to bad weather. They could've been forgiven for thinking that a simple trip to the east coast of the United States would have been easier than a 13-hour flight from Amsterdam (Gutierrez) and London (Jimenez), followed by a seven-hour delay.
It is a long way to come for the Europe- and Mexico-based players and far removed from the comfort of the United States, where Mexico has played an incredible 83 times since 2010. That works out at 49 percent of games.
Ferretti appears also to be aware of the size of the challenge awaiting the team in Argentina's interior. This might be a period of uncertainty and generational change, but the inclusion of experienced faces such as Aquino, goalkeepers Guillermo Ochoa and Jesus Corona, versatile defender Miguel Layun, forward Marco Fabian and Jimenez hints that Ferretti, who has maintained that the results are secondary to the development of this generation at present, wants to balance the younger faces with some veterans.
For a national team still without a permanent head coach, the true importance of the games lies at the feet of youngsters likes Erick Aguirre, Gerardo Arteaga, Edson Alvarez, Victor Guzman and Roberto Alvarado. They have to show that they are ready to step up when the side appoints a new manager.
It's a shame PSV Eindhoven star Hirving Lozano felt a tight hamstring and couldn't travel, given how he is now the spearhead of Mexico's attack. However, if there is one player to look out for, it has to be Pachuca's Guzman, who is in the form of his life and has scored nine goals in 15 games this season in Liga MX.
Argentina's situation isn't dissimilar to Mexico's for this doubleheader of games.
The South American side is also without a permanent boss since Jorge Sampaoli exited after an unsuccessful World Cup; both Mexico and Argentina have been linked to Atlanta United's Gerardo "Tata" Martino.
Meanwhile, Messi, Sergio Aguero, Ever Banega and Gonzalo Higuain have all since been excluded, although the suspicion -- and the challenge for Mexico -- is that Argentina's squad remains a step ahead, even without those names.
Only four of Argentina's squad are based in the Americas, compared to 17 from Mexico, highlighting one of the key differences in the football between the countries, namely the exporting of players to the top leagues. A fearsome forward group of Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Angel Correa, Lautaro Martinez and Giovanni Simeone tells you it is going to difficult for El Tri to finish 2018 on a high.
Just how hostile the atmosphere will be for these two games remains to be seen. The Argentine football association announced Monday that the cost of tickets for Friday's first game in Cordoba would temporarily be cut by 50 percent and that under-12s can get in for free. On ticketing websites late in the same day, there were still tickets remaining in all sections of Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes.
Unsurprisingly, the country's collective head is moving to the beat of the upcoming second leg of the Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors on Nov. 24, rather than the renovation of a national team that disappointed in Russia.
But come Friday, Mexico's young generation can make a statement. And you can bet that behind the smile and the emphasis on process, Brazil-born Ferretti will be bitterly disappointed if his side loses both games and comes away for his temporary spell in charge with a record of five defeats and just one win.