Uncertainty, anxiety in the air for El Tri

Posted by Eric Gomez

MEXICO CITY -- The Benito Juarez International Airport yielded its usual bustle Monday. Mexico’s largest airport, one of the busiest on the planet, routinely welcomes passengers from all nations and walks of life, and most of us here have a story or two to tell about the world leaders or celebrities we’ve bumped into over time.

Late Monday night, almost 48 hours after its journey began, New Zealand’s national football team will become the latest arrival of note to the airport, as the Kiwis prepare to face a strenuous 90 minutes against El Tri at the Estadio Azteca on Wednesday (3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN/ESPN3). Since this two-leg playoff for a World Cup berth was locked in mid-October, increased scrutiny on both sides of the Pacific Ocean has made it so journalists, analysts and fans are now trying their best to expound on what the other nation brings to the table.

Some things are simple enough. Mexico, CONCACAF’s on-and-off juggernaut, is a regular participant in the World Cup. In the past decade, its players have gone from regional stars to regular starters for some of the best teams in the world. Their youth teams have become some of the world’s best, as three titles in eight years can attest.

As for what’s on the surface for non-New Zealanders to talk about ... well, outside Winston Reid at West Ham and a few MLS players, a handful of names stand out, recognizable to only the Euro football snobs. The immediate recall, frequently referenced, is seeing the All Whites make life difficult for four-time world champion Italy in the 2010 World Cup. After that, there hasn’t been much to talk about.

Only twice have the current Oceania heavyweights made it to the World Cup -- in 1982, with current boss Ricki Herbert wearing short shorts instead of dress slacks, and in 2010. It was then, in South Africa, and with the benefit of not having to go through Australia to their region’s qualifying process, they became the only team of the nine that finished the group stage undefeated not to make the round of 16.

The memory of watching New Zealand forgive a browbeaten Italy in Nelspruit over and over again should come to be no comfort for Miguel Herrera and his crew.

After South Africa, one was left with the feeling that New Zealand came up short for that heartbreaking combination of its own mistakes and the luck of the draw in a three-game tournament.

This time around, emboldened by establishing itself as the premier power in the Oceania Football Confederation, and with many players making the transition from 2010 to 2014 in the quest to establish a budding generation, the Kiwis are no strangers to pressure situations, which, at least psychologically, gives them an edge against Mexico.

Mixed messages in the past few days coming from players, coaches and analysts on both sides of the FIFA Intercontinental Playoff have only enriched the rarefied, tense atmosphere that inches closer and closer to the Estadio Azteca.

One day, a quote praising Mexico’s style and stars will give way to another that recognizes the nervousness and the lack of organization surrounding El Tri going into the match. Meanwhile, thinly veiled praise from Herrera for New Zealand’s road to the World Cup will match snarky comments made by others who believe Herrera picked a Liga MX-only roster because he discounts the Kiwi threat in the first place.

Whatever the leadup has you believing, it's highly expected that New Zealand milks the second leg at home Nov. 20 to every possible advantage. A highly likely scenario will feature Herbert standing firm in a defensive stance, obliging Mexico to bring the game to them, saving his squad both physically and wishing for a narrow scoreline that will provide motivation for the second game in Wellington next Wednesday.

Of course, no one should expect a passive New Zealand at the Estadio Azteca for any reason. Not when a berth to the World Cup is up for grabs. Not when Mexico has been struggling for all of 2013, its European-based stars banished to a spot on the couch to watch the games from home. Not when inner turmoil and desperate Liga MX owners hungry for their piece of the economic pie have dumped three managers in two months. Not when watching that 1-1 draw against Italy from the 2010 World Cup.

And especially not in a year of almost constant failure (save one glorious moment in El Tri's last World Cup qualifying game at the Azteca on Oct. 11) that has weakened the ever-fragile Mexican psyche.

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