Mexico complete its escape from the abyss in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Most of the hard work occurred a week ago at the Azteca, but the 4-2 triumph in Wellington dispatched New Zealand for good and guaranteed El Tri’s place in the World Cup draw next month.
The two-legged victory bolstered Miguel Herrera’s considerable claims for a full-time appointment and rescued this sputtering qualifying mission at the last possible instant. Oribe Peralta grabbed a first-half hat trick to erase any lingering doubts, but the second half — peculiar as it was — could prove more useful to Herrera as he starts to plot the next step.
Each move from now until next summer will prove crucial. Herrera must accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time. And he must weigh a few of the take-home points from this second leg at Westpac Stadium along the way with him to achieve those ends:
1. Directness works for this group: Mexico must figure out what it can take from this modest test and apply to more rigorous examinations. Herrera’s emphasis on playing quickly through midfield and providing service behind the line should stick. This team must counterattack deftly against better opponents. This setup — a 5-3-2 formation reliant on overlapping wingbacks and tidy passing sequences — should fare well enough if Herrera can insert one or two players capable of increasing the tempo even further.
2. Carlos Pena makes everything tick …: El Tri labored through this year with a central midfield incapable of providing the incisive pass and unwilling to join the attack at the proper junctures. Pena eradicated those concerns and finally transferred his domestic effectiveness to the international scene. His relentless vertical running through midfield makes Mexico more potent and offers a necessary dimension against more diverse opposition. His clever feed to Peralta for the opener showed he possesses the necessary guile to play through the lines, too.
3. … and Peralta makes everything worthwhile: The streamlined approach through midfield only works if the forwards hold up the ball usefully and polish off the chances presented to them efficiently. Peralta earned top marks in both departments during both legs. He brings other players into attacking sequences and then moves intelligently into spots where he can convert in front of goal. His place in this lineup — barring a recurrence of those troublesome knee complaints — looks assured for the moment.
4. Late reminders underscore persistent defensive concerns: Herrera expects his three central defenders to establish a resolute base for his side to venture forward. The past three matches suggest this personnel group simply isn’t sufficient to fulfill that role against stronger competition. New Zealand played behind Rafa Márquez, Maza Rodríguez and Juan Carlos Valenzuela far too easily given the paucity of genuine quality in its ranks. Rory Fallon’s goal, in particular, sounded a loud warning for trouble ahead. This stopgap trio needs reinforcements to cope with more astute players capable of punishing Mexico for its inability to cope with clever runs or tend to space properly.
5. Time to make peace with the foreign contingent: The late wobbles in this second leg owed much to New Zealand’s persistence in Ricki Herbert’s final match in charge, but they also reinforced the need for further strengthening over the next few months. Herrera cannot afford to lean on a domestic core next summer. He must find a way to integrate Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernández and Héctor Moreno into this revamped setup. And he needs to concoct a plan to persuade the exiled Carlos Vela to return to the fold as well. Those four players make Mexico a better and more complete outfit. It is now down to Herrera to ensure they carve out meaningful roles and spark El Tri to success in Brazil.
Images provided by Getty.