What a difference four years makes. In 2008, Mexico's World Cup hopes were hanging in the balance after an own goal left them down a goal in San Pedro Sula. To make matters worse, the team with whom they were tied, Jamaica, were scoring at will against an over-matched group of Canadian college kids.
The lasting image of this night was Mexican keeper, Oswaldo Sanchez, pleading with his Honduran adversaries that a 1-0 win was enough to send them both through.
It had come that; begging.
Four years later, Mexico's path to the Hex was anything but a white knuckle ride through the CONCACAF labyrinth. Two straight road wins in The Cuscatlán and Costa Rica's National Stadium ensured that this stage of Mexico's World Cup campaign would be drama free. Almost.
As good as Mexico played on the road, they were listless at home. At the Azteca. Don't think people didn't notice. The press did, and since there were no losses to eviscerate the coach and players, they had to have something to bitch about. In the end, though, the numbers that mattered were 6 wins, and 18 points - stretching Jose manuel "Chepo" de la Torre's unbeaten run in official matches to 12, all of them wins, and a +29 goal differential.
As he prepares for the hex, Chepo has methodically collected a somewhat deep pool of talented players and should be considered a prohibitive favorite to win one of the 3 tickets to Brasil14. Let's break it down.
Goalkeepers. Cruz Azul's Jesús Corona started the majority of the semi-final qualifiers and was sensational in the Olympic tournament. He appears to be Chepo's guy, which is bad news for Guillermo Ochoa, who is in his 2nd year manning the nets for the Corsican Club Ajaccio. Regardless of who gets the nod, both keepers have proven that they are more than capable of handling the task.
Wild Card - Mexico has an abundance of good goal keepers, but not a truly great one. Corona and Ochoa, though, do seem to be one step ahead of the rest of the group that includes Jonathan Orozco (Monterrey) and Chepo's security blanket, Alfredo Talavera (Toluca).
Central Defenders The central pairing of Hector Moreno and Maza Rodriguez seems to be set in stone, but someone will have to fill in when the the accumulated yellow cards add up. Who is it going to be? Chepo need not look further than the central pairing in the London games: Diego Reyes (Club América) and Hiram Mier (Monterrey). The youngsters were stellar at the Olympics, particularly the Gold Medal match in which neither were whistled for a foul. We also can't forget Hugo Ayala (Tigres), who missed the last call up due to injury.
Wild Card - Rafa Marquez. He says he wants to play in one last World Cup, but he has a long way to go to get his aging body in condition to deal with the rigors of a qualifier. If he makes the commitment to do so, he can certainly be counted on in a pinch.
Wingbacks - With the emergence of a good crop of holding midfielders, we can only hope that the Glorious Salcido Experiment in the middle has reached its conclusion. If that is the case (not likely), then Salcido can go back to his customary spot on the left, where he can back Jorge Torres Nilo. The Tigres defender has defended very well on the left, provides great support for Andrés Guardado, and supplies more than decent crosses to the forwards. The right side has been as chaotic as the left side has been consistent ever since Efraín Juaréz' precipitous fall off form. The latest to be plugged in is Monterrey's Severo Meza, who has acquitted himself well, as has another olympian, Israel Jiménez (Tigres).
Wild Card - There is no shortage of wingbacks in Mexico, given how many teams opt to play with a back line of 5, so it would not be a surprise if one appears out of thin air, much like Andrés Guardado did in 2005.
Holding Midfielders - With the Gerardo Torrado era coming to an end, what was once a position of uncertainty due to his departure can quickly become a position of strength. And it depends an how quickly some promising newcomers can win their coaches trust. One who already has, Jesús Zavala (Monterrey), is out until December with a sprained MCL. Zavala's misfortune has given said newcomers a chance to impress, particularly Jorge "Chatón" Enríquez, who seems destined to man the middle for the next decade. The Chivas man had an undeniable positive impact when he subbed on, and later started in the Olympic tournament. He also subbed on for Torrado in the Houston qualifier - quite symbolic. Like Torrado, he is a classic destroyer, and his superior defensive abilities allow his mid-field partner to be more of a box to box guy.
One such guy is Héctor Herrera, who paired with Chatón with great success in three tournaments n 2012, all of which culminated with Mexico lifting a trophy. However, Herrera only has a handful of minutes logged with the senior side. And with only one locals-only friendly before the start of the hex, Herrera is going to have to really turn heads in the local league to get Chepo off (ugh) Salcido.
Wild Card - Carlos Peña. The León man got his first cap last week and showed quite a bit after an expectedly nervy start. The upcoming liguilla (and possible Libertadores) for León will be el Gullit's first taste of the big time, and how he performs there will go a long way in determining if he has a future on the other team that wears green.
Maybe, just maybe, we'll have a Jonathan Dos Santos sighting as well
Outside Midfielders - When Andrés Guardado is on his game, he is a world class left midfielder and makes Mexico's attack exponentially more dangerous, as it was in 2011. In 2012, however, Guardado has yet to really catch fire at Valencia, and his drop in form has also affected his play on the National team. However, no one in the Liga MX even comes close to the the Little Prince's quality, which is unfortunate. He needs the competition. Over on the right, the competition is wide open. Pablo Barrera's 2nd career torn ACL has left the door open for someone, anyone to step through. The first to get a chance was Javier Aquino (Cruz Azul), who was serviceable, but nothing special. Elías Hernández tipped the field to his favor in the minutes he has played. But are either long term solutions? Angel Reyna got a shot in Mexico's last qualifier vs El Salvador and may have put the argument to rest. The Monterrey man showed a lot of savvy in his man of the match performance and is one Mexico's few attacking players that is comfortable playing with both feet.
Wild Cards - Marco Fabián. The Chivas man is far too talented to leave off the pitch, despite the fact that he and Giovani Dos Santos play the same position. He can play either on the right or left, and if they got it to work in the Olympics, then can make it work in the Hex.
Candido Ramírez. The Santos youngster's blazing speed will fit in very nicely with the way Mexico likes to counter when they lead.
Forward - In his first game of the new season this week, it only took Giovani Dos Santos 30 minutes to rack up two nice assists for his new club, Mallorca. Welcome back, Gio. Chepo did not have Gio for his last four qualifiers, and he was missed. Mexico's offense struggled somewhat as Chepo tried to replace Gio with Oribe Peralta, Marco Fabián, Zinha, and Angel Reyna. He'll have the real thing back in February. And this time Gio will have something he hasn't had in a few years: game rhythm.
Next in the pecking order is Marco Fabián, who surely would have played in the last two qualifiers were it not for a separated shoulder he sustained at León a few weeks ago. If we see Sinha or anyone else, then something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Wild Card - Carlos Vela. One day soon, Vela and Chepo will smooth out their differences and Vela will return to the National Team. Maybe. Regardless of what side you have taken in this ridiculous snit, there is no denying that "el bombardero" is a difference maker, and difference makers are in short supply in Mexico and just about everywhere else.
Strikers - Javier Hernández may not be the most technically gifted of strikers, but his talent lies in his unquenchable desire to score a goal by any means necessary. He will never stop trying, and he may be one of the best in the world in scoring on half chances. Chicharito struggled in his last start for Mexico, but he kept plugging away and finally got the goal. It seemed to take the pressure off of him for the next game vs. El Salvador, where he played with a lot more purpose. For his efforts, he was rewarded with another goal. If not Chicharito, then there is Oribe Peralta, who might be Mexico's best big game striker. If anyone has any doubts about that after they way Peralta ended last season's liguiila and the Olympics, then they are just hatin'. Aldo de Nigris seems to get hurt at the wrong times, but has proven over the past few years to be a very reliable striker who has a very sneaky creative aspect to his game.
Wild Card - Raúl Jiménez. The América striker reads the game very well to anticipate both what his teammates and his opponents are going to do. It is only a matter of time before he emerges as a real talent.
Ollitsac Yren - Perhaps if we say his name backwards enough times, it will snap him out of his funk; his five year funk. Not likely, but hey.