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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Belief will be Mexico’s biggest problem at the 2022 World Cup

40,000 Mexico fans will be in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, but few would be confident in their prediction that El Tri can make it beyond the round of 16. That’s where Mexico have fallen at each of the last seven World Cups and with Tata Martino’s team at a low ebb entering the 2022 tournament, there is little belief they can go any further this time.

Martino is well aware of the criticism he has faced as Mexico manager. The former Argentina and Barcelona boss labelled himself “public enemy number one” as his team struggled through CONCACAF qualifying with supporters unhappy at Martino’s uninspired style of play. Those concerns still linger.

On the face of things, Mexico comfortably qualified for the 2022 World Cup. Ultimately, they finished second in the Octagonal, joint on points with table-toppers Canada and ahead of rivals USA. And yet this doesn’t tell the full story of Mexico’s cycle for this World Cup. This is a team that has lost its self identity.

In principle, Mexico like to dominate the ball. The problem, however, is that they are often too slow to move possession forward, resulting in laboured attacking performances. Mexico are also at the start of a generational transition with many of their key players at the 2022 World Cup now the wrong side of 30.

Mexico fans expect their national team to play with a certain edge. They want El Tri to attack and take the game to the opposition, but Mexico under Martino rarely do this. At times, it’s as if the players on the pitch don’t even believe in the methods of their manager. There is a sense the relationship between Martino, his players and the fans could reach breaking point in Qatar.

A favourable draw could still see Mexico make it out of their group at the 2022 World Cup. Argentina are among the favourites to win the whole thing and will be expected to claim top spot, but Poland lack quality beyond Robert Lewandowski and Saudi Arabia will most likely finish at the foot of the standings.

‘Quinto Partido’ – The Fifth Game – is spoken about as the glass ceiling Mexico have still to burst through at the World Cup. Despite being a soccer-obsessed nation within the 10 most populous countries on earth, Mexico has never made it beyond the final eight of the World Cup, and the last time they made it that far was all the way back in 1986.

Regardless of the quality of the team on the pitch, Mexico have the pressure of breaking the ‘quinto partido’ curse at every World Cup they play – it will be the same at the 2022 World Cup even as pessimism among fans festers. Anything short of making the quarter-finals will be considered a failure.

There are individuals who could get this flawed Mexico team that far. Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano is in good form at club level for Napoli and is Mexico’s primary difference-maker in the attacking third. The 27-year-old is most dangerous in one-on-one situations when he can drive into the box to get a shot away.

However, to create those one-on-one scenarios Mexico will need to move the ball quickly to Lozano in the wide areas and this will likely be the role of Edson Alvarez. While the Ajax man is a protective barrier at the base of the Mexico midfield, he is also crucial to the way his team starts attacks from deep. This is something Alvarez does very well for his club and his country need him to perform this role just as well at the World Cup.

Neither Javier Hernandez nor Carlos Vela will be at the 2022 World Cup, which is a talking point in itself, so it’s crucial Mexico get the best out of their wide attackers as they will likely be the ones tasked with creating and scoring goals. After all, the midfield won’t produce many goals given that Martino is expected to start with a central trio of Alvarez, Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera.

It could be argued that Martino’s conservative approach might be best-suited to tournament soccer. Gareth Southgate has faced similar criticism to the Mexico boss and his England team reached the 2018 World Cup semi-finals and the Euro 2020 final. As things stand, though, Mexico has lost its connection with its own fans. That might be difficult to re-establish. 

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