Back to reality for Mexico

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- So now it's back to reality for El Tri. Securing a place at the 2014 World Cup. And, just because it's been so long, actually scoring a goal at the Azteca in a competitive match.

The 2-1 victory over Japan in the Confederations Cup on Saturday at least allows Mexico to go home with a W, though perhaps more encouraging was the progress over the three games, which began with the debacle against Italy. Jose Manuel "Chepo" De la Torre urged everyone to look beyond the result, beyond even this victory.

"It's always important to win," he said. "But sometimes victories can fool you into thinking you are better than you are. And sometimes it's easier to work on your weaknesses when you lose."

It was an almost sphinx-like pronouncement. Was beating Japan a bad thing because now it's harder to fix what isn't working?

The answer may lie in the fact that, in some ways, you need two Mexicos -- one to run the table in the Hexagonal (ideally) and one to prepare for the World Cup. Because it's pretty clear that, at least for this team, the two objectives require two different approaches and maybe two different skill sets. El Tri simply don't face teams like Brazil, Italy and Japan in CONCACAF. It's not only a question of quality -- the United States is comparable to Japan, after all -- it's also a question of style.

"The qualification process and the Confederations Cup are two distinct things," says Andres Guardado. "The mindset is different and the type of pressure is different."

Against Japan, Chepo mixed things up. Raul Jimenez joined Javier Hernandez up front, with Gio dos Santos and Guardado out wide, albeit with plenty of creative freedom. The aim was the usual one: creating and converting chances, finding those goals that, in the Hex, are so hard to come by.

The verdict? We're not quite there yet.

Jimenez turned only 22 last month, and he showed it against Japan. He saw little of the ball and was even less of a presence, despite boasting a 6-foot-3 frame that seemed ideally suited against two central defenders who are hardly towering: 5-foot-11 Yasuyuki Konno and 6-foot-2 Yuzo Kurihara.

"I want to play every game," Jimenez said after the match. "But it's clear that I need to learn, to grow, to be patient and to do what Chepo asks."

Hernandez won his man-of-the-match award for the two goals (which could have been a hat trick had he sunk a penalty) but you only wonder how much more effective he would be with better service. And, especially in his case, it's crucial that others create more chances for him because he's the classic supply-dependent poacher. Yet too often, the men who are meant to supply that service -- Guardado and dos Santos -- aren't on the same page. On at least three occasions, Mexico had a three-on-three counterattack and each time they failed to even get a shot off, not because of an individual error or brilliant defensive work by the opposition but as a result of poor movement and decisions.

It's the kind of basic stuff you work on in training, the type of coordination that should come naturally between gifted players, particularly the likes of Hernandez, Guardado and dos Santos, who have played together for years. And ultimately with this Mexico team, it's the frontmen who have to generate the scoring opportunities because that's where the quality is. After all, Gerardo Torrado and Jesus Zavala may be capable of doing a job in the middle of the park, but they won't be mistaken for Xavi and Andrea Pirlo anytime soon. And the main issue with this team is the age-old one.

"I thought we played equally well against Brazil and today against Japan," says Guardado. "What's the difference? Scoring. Against Brazil we didn't have luck on our side, against Japan we did. And we scored goals."

Except you would argue it's not just a matter of luck. There's also issues of balance and tactical nous, something that too often abandons Mexico in the final third. Chepo gets criticized for being defensive, and while he does often have a safety-first mindset, the real issue is that Mexico haven't attacked well. And that must be Chepo's priority.

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Elsewhere, there were bright spots to take away. The Japanese front four, who caused so many problems for Italy, were largely held at bay by a defence well marshalled by Hector Moreno and 20-year-old Diego Reyes, who stepped in for Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez and will likely soon supplant him. And Guillermo Ochoa proved once again that he's not really No. 2 behind Jose Corona, more like No. 1A.

But then we already knew that El Tri could be very stingy defensively. The real challenge is fixing the side up top. And how well Chepo does that come September, when they host Honduras and travel to face the United States away in two crucial World Cup qualifiers, will likely determine whether he gets to come back to Brazil next summer as Mexico coach.

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