On Wednesday night, Mexico and Honduras face off in Houston with a spot in the 2011 Gold Cup final at stake. With a potential United States vs. Mexico championship match looming on the horizon, El Tri must fight the urge to look ahead. Honduras may not be close to Mexico in terms of overall talent level, but in the right situation, Los Catrachos certainly have the ability to pull off a semifinal upset.
"I expect a tough game, very competitive, very demanding, we have a big rivalry with them and it will surely be a close game," commented Mexico midfielder Gerardo Torrado on the eve of the semifinal match.
Honduras may not be El Tri's top rival, but the two teams have developed an increasingly intense relationship over the years. Much of this is due to the recent success of Honduras on the field. In the third round of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Honduras defeated Mexico 1-0. That result was later followed up with another win over Mexico in the final round hexagonal -- a decisive 3-1 victory in April of 2009. While Mexico would get a bit of revenge in the return match at Estadio Azteca six months later, the point had already been made -- Honduras were no longer a team to be taken lightly.
Coming off a World Cup appearance in South Africa, Honduras were expected to win their group at this year’s Gold Cup. Instead, the team slogged through their group play matches in mostly unspectacular fashion. Although Honduras did score seven goals in the group stage, that figure is quite a bit misleading. All seven of those goals came in a single game -- a 7-1 win over Grenada. Honduras failed to score in their other opening round matches, against both Guatemala (a 0-0 draw) and Jamaica (a 0-1 loss).
Don't let any of the group play results cloud your vision, though. Honduras are a very good team, and they will continue to get better on Wednesday as they incorporate some top talent back into the fold. The team's best player, Wilson Palacios, didn't even begin his Gold Cup campaign until stoppage time of the quarterfinal round.
Palacios, the star Honduras midfielder, made his long-awaited return from injury very late in Saturday's match against Costa Rica. It wasn't quite a Willis Reed moment, but Palacios did convert his penalty to help send Honduras through.
Just as important in the Costa Rica match was the return of striker Carlo Costly. Banged up and battling injuries, Costly did not start the quarterfinal, but like Palacios came on as a late sub and converted his penalty shot (as a team, Honduras converted all four penalties taken to eliminate Costa Rica). If any one player is key to Honduras pulling the upset on Wednesday night, it’s Costly.
If nothing else, Costly brings a unique familiarity with the Mexican national team. Costly actually spent much of his youth in Mexico, as his family moved to the country when he was 14. He knows the players and the system well, and is also coming off a season spent with Club Atlas in Guadalajara. (To add a bit of motivation, Atlas confirmed on Tuesday that Costly would be moving on to a new club prior to next season).
Costly also has no fear of El Tri, something demonstrated by his two goals in that huge 3-1 World Cup qualifying win back in 2009. His superior size, strength, and a nose for the goal all have the potential to cause the current Mexico backline some serious problems. Rafael Marquez and Hector Moreno will have their hands full trying to keep Costly off the scoresheet.
And it’s not just Costly that can do damage. His partner up front, Jerry Bengston is a solid scorer in his own right. The offense will also be further improved by the return of midfielder Alfredo Mejia, who missed the Costa Rica match due to suspension.
The early portions of Wednesday night's match will likely end up deciding the outcome. Mexico has had a propensity to start games off very slow during the Gold Cup, and Honduras are not a team that plans on sitting back and letting El Tri warm up. Look for Los Catrachos to be very aggressive early. If they can catch Mexico a bit off guard and score an early goal, this quickly becomes an entirely different match.
If Honduras can't find a way to score, all hope for the upset likely goes out the window. Juan Garcia, Mauricio Sabillon, and the rest of the Honduras defense have done well this tournament, but they haven't faced an attack like Mexico's yet. The question is, can Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos, Andres Guardado, and company come out focused from the opening whistle? If Mexico can recreate the same first half magic they showed against Costa Rica, we may already be previewing the final by halftime.
Mexico vs. Honduras can be seen in the U.S. on Univision, Wednesday at 10pm eastern.