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Mexico hoping for deep World Cup run after ghastly year

Since Mexico secured qualification to this year’s tournament in Russia, things haven’t been too positive for El Tri. It’s less than 24 hours before they make their debut in the World Cup and the Aztecs attempt to forget the past and work to make it a year to remember.

Denmark v Mexico - International Friendly
Head Coach of Mexico Juan Carlos Osorio gesures during International Friendly match between Denmark v Mexico at Brondby Stadion on June 9, 2018 in Brondby, Denmark.
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

In less than 24 hours the Mexican national team will step on a Russian pitch for the first time in 2018 to debut against Germany in the FIFA World Cup. It’s been a long, strenuous and stressful journey for manager Juan Carlos Osorio and his team.

Russia v Saudi Arabia: Group A - FIFA Fan Festival
According to Remezcla, there are more than 13,000 people coming from Mexico in Russia for the World Cup. That is the second most representatives of any country only behind the United States, who you have to imagine have a lot of people of Mexican origin making the trip to Russia as well.
Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

On paper, you might think this Mexico team is coming in as hot as ever to the world’s biggest celebrated sporting event. After all, El Tri ran past everyone in CONCACAF qualifying en route to finishing first in the hexagonal with a five point difference from first place to second place. They also scored the most goals (16) and conceded the least (7).

Osorio’s overall record of 30-9-9 is deceiving yet positive to the naked eye. And then there’s the fact that for the first time ever, Mexico has a majority of players in their World Cup squad playing overseas in Europe or the United States. What more can you ask of a national team, right?

Well, sadly when you delve deeper into this past year, you’ll find it hasn’t been El Tri’s best pre-World Cup circuit.

Mexico has played a total of eight friendlies since qualifying, winning four, drawing two and losing two. Pretty good, huh? Well, let’s take a closer look at those.

They beat Iceland 3-0, a very good result against an underrated team, but then they only beat Poland and Bosnia 1-0. Neither team had its best players, and frankly Mexico was lucky not to face Poland’s Robert Lewandowski nor Bosnia’s Edin Dzeko, two of the best poachers on the planet. Either one of these men on the opposite squad and suddenly the 1-0 scoreline in favor of Mexico doesn’t seem so predictable.

El Tri then said goodbye to their home fans at the Estadio Azteca with a 1-0 win over Scotland. Scotland?! Only 1-0? Not the send off fans were hoping for.

Soccer: Mexico vs Croatia
Hirving “Chucky” Lozano scored a brace against Belgium, No. 3 in the FIFA World Rankings, on November 10, 2017, one of the few positive results for Mexico before the World Cup.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Now, let’s take a look at their draws. Osorio’s men battled Belgium back in November and came away with a 3-3 draw, thanks to young starlet Hirving Lozano scoring a brace. That’s a great result on a top-five team in the world.]

But then they drew 0-0 with a Gareth Bale-less Wales and then suffered bad losses to a Croatian B-squad, 1-0, and to Denmark, 2-0, after a second half that looked as if Mexico didn’t have to play a World Cup the next week.

Denmark v Mexico - International Friendly
Mexico players react after suffering a 2-0 loss to Denmark in the final game before Germany.
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Let’s be honest, save for maybe two of these results, it has not been even remotely satisfying watching Mexico play this past year. The sudden scoring drought plaguing Mexican forwards does not help either. You could say this has been one of the worst and less convincing tune ups before the World Cup.

It’s not just the team on the pitch that’s having problems. Who could even mention Los Aztecas without their polarizing Colombian coach on the sidelines, scribbling away on his famous (or infamous) notebook.

Perhaps the most scrutinized and criticized Mexico coach since Sven-Göran Eriksson, the lineup-changing lover’s reputation has never been a positive one with the general Mexican crowd. His lineups are confusing, some of his coaching decisions are worrisome, and his World Cup squad choices frustrated more than his fair share of Mexico supporters.

Mexico Arrive to Moscow for FIFA World Cup Russia 2018
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has never used the same lineup twice. In 48 games with Mexico, he’s fielded 48 different lineups. He was also criticized for his exclusion of players like Rodolfo Pizarro, “Gallito” Vazquez, and Jesus Molina in the World Cup squad.
Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

But wait, México still has its supremely talented players to fall back on, right? After all, nearly all of them play in Europe.

Well, yes you’d be absolutely correct that Mexico has all the talent in the world at their disposal to get the job done. The problem is it was a strange, lackluster season for Mexicans in Europe and the US.

Here’s the players that get a pass; Héctor Herrera, Carlos Vela, Guillermo Ochoa (although you could argue the Belgian league is pretty weak), Andres Guardado and, of course, Hirving Lozano.

The rest of the Mexican players playing overseas had some trouble making an impact on their teams. Hector Moreno was a Roma reject before sometimes starting with Real Sociedad. Marco Fabián and Carlos Salcedo struggled with injuries the whole year. Miguel Layún was forgotten at Porto before playing better at Sevilla. Raul Jimenez only started six league matches for Benfica. Javier Hernandez was out of favor at West Ham for so long (scored only eight times) and Jesus Corona looked very unmotivated this past season at Porto (scored only three times).

And how could we forget Giovani dos Santos. The man once dubbed as Mexico’s best play-maker now looks like he doesn’t even belong in MLS.

West Ham United v Watford - Premier League
Chicharito, Mexico’s top goalscorer of all time, just had his least-productive season in Europe at West Ham United. The 30-year-old also hasn’t scored donning the green-and-white jersey in eight months.
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Then there were the injuries. Mexico had a multitude of them throughout the past few months. With the results going the way they were for El Tri, the last thing México needed was injuries to its defense, but guess what? They had two. Diego Reyes and Néstor Araujo were both ruled out of this World Cup with a hamstring and knee injury, respectively.

Mexico Training Session and Press Conference
23-year-old Erick Gutierrez (left) was named as Diego Reyes’ official replacement for the World Cup, while the injuries to both Reyes and Araujo provide 20-year-old Edson Alvarez (right) with a tremendous opportunity to break into the squad.
Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

So many problems have plagued the boys in green, white and red.

Reports continue to show the consistent backing of Osorio by the players, and the injuries to Reyes and Araujo, plus the fallout from the “afterparty scandal”, showed the group’s unity.

But will it be enough? Enough to give the current world champs a fight on Sunday? Enough to finally get the ball in the back of the net? Enough to make another splash on the grandest stage of them all?

The pressure will be uniquely elevated, as Mexico is probably the only team in the World Cup with not just their own country counting on them, but an entire 33.7 million residents of another doing so as well.

Mexico Training Session and Press Conference - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Despite media scrutiny from the Scotland afterparty, and the constant criticism of their coach and the recent form of the team, the Mexican players remain happy, calm and united, many players have said.
Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

So, can they do it? It’s not as if Mexico hasn’t surprised before. Let’s remember back in 2014 Mexico was just minutes away from failing to qualify for the World Cup altogether. They went on to book their ticket to Brazil through an inter-confederation playoff and looked on their way to a semifinal run, had it not been for, well, you know.

The clock is ticking, México.