By Mike Woitalla
Honduras, USA, Costa Rica, Italy, Brazil and Panama (twice). That's a list of teams that beat Mexico last year. In 2013, when El Tri went through four coaches and was saved from World Cup qualification elimination by a goal from the USA's Graham Zusi against Panama.
Miguel Herrera became coach No. 4 and guided Mexico to a playoff series win over New Zealand, to earn the fourth Concacaf spot at Brazil 2014.
So which Mexico would show up in Brazil? The one we saw so often last year, when its players seemed incapable of hitting a simple pass once they gave up a goal and the pressure was on? Or a Mexico like the one that won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics?
In its opening game against Cameroon last Friday, El Tri indicated it could keep its nerves. Having two fine goals for Giovani dos Santos unfairly called back didn’t faze the Mexicans, who pulled off a 1-0 win in a dominating, smooth-passing performance.
On Tuesday, Herrera’s squad stayed undefeated in Brazil by earning a 0-0 tie with the host.
FEARLESS MEXICANS. Mexico has never been known to take a defensive approach and it made no exception against the World Cup favorite and host. The Brazilians ended up with only a slight edge in possession (53%-47%) and shots (14-13). The Brazilians did hit more on target, and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa made eight saves, including a spectacular diving effort on Neymar’s 26th-minute header.
WOEFUL BRAZILIANS. Topping the list of Brazil problems is the center forward position. Fred is in danger of being remembered at this World Cup solely for the penalty kick he drew in the 2-1 win over Croatia. His 68th-minute replacement, Jo, was equally ineffective and squandered a prime chance when he needlessly rushed his 75th-minute shot.
Neymar at least forced two big saves from Ochoa and showed some spirit late in the game, but Oscar, who sparkled against Croatia, played tamely against the Mexicans while second-half sub Bernard kept gifting the ball back to El Tri. Indeed, Brazil was again plagued by bad passing, as demonstrated when Marcelo frequently ended his promising forays with a mis-hit.
OLYMPIC REMATCH. From Mexico’s 2-1 win over Brazil in 2012 Olympic final in London, Brazil on Tuesday fielded Thiago Silva,Marcelo, Neymar and Oscar (while Hulk was sidelined with an injury). Members on the Mexican Olympic squad who played in Fortaleza were dos Santos, Hector Herrera, Marco Fabian, Raul Jimenez and Oribe Peralta, who scored both goals in the gold-medal game and the winner against Cameroon at this World Cup.
Peralta has limited Javier Hernandez to duty off the bench, but Chicharito’s 74th-minute entrance helped keep Brazil occupied on defense. Thiago Silva and Luis Gustavo resorting to crude fouls to stop Hernandez, demonstrating yet another disturbing quality of this Brazilian team.
We expect Brazilian defenders to win the ball and launch counterattacks, but we’re seeing them frequently give up free kicks and even booting the ball into the stands.
Croatia and Cameroon meet on Wednesday and Group A will be decided on Monday. Brazil needs a dramatic overhaul to meet expectations. Mexico’s quest is to build on a promising start that looked so unlikely just a year ago.