Javier Aguirre has guided Mexico into the knockout stages of the World Cup for the second time in his career. But after defeat to Uruguay left the Aztecas finishing second in Group A, they face a struggle to match a quarter final finish, their best return from a World Cup. Argentina are the most likely opponents in the next round as the tournament whittles down to just 16 teams.
Despite the daunting challenge of facing Diego Maradona’s side, who have won both group games so far, it may favour El Tri. So far in the competition, Mexico have struggled in games where the onus has been on them to deliver. Against South Africa they failed to make their dominance count and in their final group game, the Aztecas’ were largely second best to an in-form Uruguayan side. Yet against France, Aguirre’s side played with a freedom that allowed them to express themselves as footballers, resulting in the win over the French, all but eliminating them from the World Cup. Against Uruguay, the pressure was clear to see. Mexico rushed passes, miss-controlled the ball and generally looked uncomfortable as they chased a one-goal deficit. Luis Suarez’s fine header settled the game that was largely expected to be a draw, but with the Group’s runner-up set to face Argentina, both sides made three points a priority.
The Coach was forced into changes ahead of the game; Efrain Juarez’s suspension presented Cuautehmoc Blanco with his first start in the tournament. Blanco’s inclusion in central midfield fused creativity with industry as he partnered the duo of Gerardo Torrado and Rafa Marquez. With Blanco, Giovani dos Santos, and Andres Guardado-who began the game in place of the injured Carlos Vela- all supplying Guillermo Franco; Aguirre certainly hadn’t been notified that caution was the supposed theme of the day. Yet the Mexican attack faltered. Guardado hit the bar from distance but the closest they came to beating Fernando Muslera in the Uruguayan goal was when defender Francisco Rodriguez glanced Pablo Barrera’s cross wide of the far post.
With the prospect of facing a strong Argentina side looming, Aguirre will mull over his approach to the game. The attacking style to the team is unlikely to be compromised but the system might, given that Guillermo Franco again mustered an ineffective display as the focal point of the attack. In the latter stages of the 1-0 loss to Uruguay, Aguirre called upon the 4-4-2 formation that had been a success prior to the tournament. Javier Hernandez was sent on to join Franco in the search for an equaliser, but Franco’s performance is the key concern for his Coach. The veteran forward has failed to find the net in the games thus far but more alarmingly, is seldom involved in Mexican attacks, cutting a lost figure as dos Santos, Guardado and Barrera have all excelled. It’s a difficult situation for Aguirre, as Franco is the one forward who possesses the physical presence needed to lead the line individually. Hernandez’s performance as the lone front man in the warm-up game with the Netherlands indicated that he could provide an alternative, but the Manchester United forward is yet to start a competitive game for the Aztecas.
Mexican eyes are now cast eagerly towards to Polokwane, where Argentina face Greece in their final group game. Barring any further unexpected results, Aguirre will know that the Argentineans are up next. In the wake of defeat against Uruguay, morale in the camp will remain high after completing the initial objective of progressing to the knockout stages, but Aguirre will again deflect the spotlight away from his players. The Mexican media have examined his touchline presence in recent matches and the Coach wore his frustrations as his side failed to break down a resistant Uruguayan defence. Nevertheless, should El Tri face La Albiceleste in the round of 16, then the pressure will be on Lionel Messi and company. Mexico will feel well prepared for knockout football having tested themselves against the Netherlands, Italy and England in preparation for the tournament. However, promising performances in friendlies are one thing, and the Aztecas’ must learn to handle pressure if they are to equal their exploits from the 1970 and 1986 tournaments.