Mexico's march to Russia continues with comprehensive win vs. Honduras
MEXICO CITY -- Mexico defeated Honduras 3-0 in Estadio Azteca on Thursday to hold on to first place in the Hexagonal stage of World Cup qualifying after five rounds of matches.
Oswaldo Alanis headed in to give Mexico the lead in the 34th minute, with Hirving Lozano and Raul Jimenez wrapping up the scoring in the second half.
Here are three takeaways from the game as Mexico maintained its stranglehold on the top of the CONCACAF table.
1. Mexico in cruise control against lackluster Honduras
The horrors of four years ago seem almost a lifetime away. Rewind to when Honduras visited Estadio Azteca in Hex qualifying in 2013 ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the place was a nervous wreck. That transmitted to the players, or vice versa, and El Tri ended up losing 2-1 to the Central American side.
This time around, Mexico is a much more authoritative and emotionally complete unit. The victory Thursday moved the team to 13 points from five games, two more than it got over the 10 matches last time out. Should Mexico defeat the United States on Sunday in the same venue, qualification for Russia 2018 will be almost guaranteed. No team has ever missed out on a World Cup after picking up 16 points at the Hex stage of qualifying.
Mexico took some time to get into the game, with coach Juan Carlos Osorio leaving stalwart Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez on the bench and Hector Moreno and Miguel Layun out of the matchday squad.
But by the time Alanis headed home from a corner -- Mexico has now scored from a set piece in all of its Hex victories -- El Tri was finding its rhythm and in almost total control. Honduras had the odd attack but didn't have a single shot on target, and it was clear why Jorge Luis Pinto has struggled of late with this team as the Central American side undergoes an awkward generational shift.
All the stats favored the hosts: Possession was 71 percent to 29 and there were 16 shots for Mexico to Honduras' five. In fact, the only area Honduras dominated was in committing 21 fouls to Mexico's seven.
This was another positive night for Osorio. The rotations worked, the crowd was behind the team, and the competition for places is heating up, with Jonathan dos Santos again very good and sub Lozano vying for a spot in the starting team with Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Carlos Vela.
The negatives were Carlos Salcedo leaving the field in the second half with what looked like a left leg injury and the Azteca crowd once again shouting the infamous goalkeeper chant, in spite the stadium's PA urging them to chant "Mexico" instead.
2. Herrera provides solutions in holding role
FIFA released Mexico's 23-player squad for the Confederations Cup earlier Thursday, and one of the main takeaways was the lack of true holding midfielders like Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez or Jesus Molina.
Diego Reyes is an option in the position, and Andres Guardado plays a similar role for PSV, but Hector Herrera got the job done Thursday in a masterful display.
Herrera was the fulcrum of Mexico's midfield as a deep-lying playmaker, providing an option for center-backs Alanis and Reyes and dictating the direction and rhythm of Mexico's play. The Porto player's passing was good all night, but the crowning moment was a three-minute period in the second half, in which he sent two the sumptuous balls through the Honduras defense to put Lozano and Raul Jimenez clean through for Mexico's second and third goals.
It hasn't been a great last couple of years for Herrera with the national team. In theory, Herrera should now be the heartbeat of this side. There have been glimpses since the 2014 World Cup, but he hasn't taken the role on and made it his own.
There will be sterner tests ahead against the United States on Sunday and then against Portugal in Mexico's Confederations Cup opener in Kazan, especially when it comes to the greater defensive responsibility the position demands, but Herrera seems to fit.
The other issue with the position is that Rafa Marquez, considered the automatic starter there until his back injury in March, was left out of the match-day squad. Osorio has said the Atlas captain is fit and in full training, but it was strange that the Colombian coach didn't even put him on the bench. If Marquez is to start against the United States, it would be with just 22 minutes under his belt since March 25.
3. Mexico nearly a World Cup lock with win vs. U.S.
Perhaps the main reason the Estadio Azteca was only a little over half-full is that it has been difficult to divert attention away from Sunday's rivalry match against the United States. That game is already sold out.
This is turning into a dominant World Cup qualifying campaign for Mexico. These games against teams like Honduras, even at home, aren't easy when teams come, play a 5-4-1 and defend as if their lives depend on it. But Mexico have got the job done at home and then have gone on the road and ground out results.
After all the debacle of four years ago, when a late United States goal in Panama helped Mexico into the intercontinental playoff, it would be a sweet moment for Mexican football to almost guarantee qualification for Russia 2018 by making it six points from six against the Stars and Stripes on June 11.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.