Will this be the year that Mexico finally overcomes the “quinto partido” World Cup curse?
There are a lot of hurdles for El Tri to get there.
Mexico has experienced both lackluster recent performances and a spate of key injuries as the team prepares for the World Cup. And the Mexicans are in a tough group in Qatar.
Mexico has reached the knockout round in each of the last seven World Cups, but it hasn’t reached the quarterfinals — the “quinto partido,” or fifth game.
“We just have to go there with a very strong mindset, with a very strong motivation that we can write the history in Qatar,” said Mexico midfielder Hector Herrera, who played for Atletico Madrid before signing with the Houston Dynamo in MLS this year.
Raul Jimenez, who plays as a striker for Wolverhampton, has been dogged by a groin injury. And Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, who plays for Sevilla, has a fractured fibula that was supposed to keep him out of the World Cup.
Both were missing from two recent California friendlies along with Herrera, Rogelio Funes Mori, Jorge Sanchez and Luis Romo. Mexico defeated Peru 1-0 but fell to Colombia 3-2. El Tri has two more tune-up games against Iraq and Sweden in Spain before heading to Qatar.
Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino hasn’t ruled Jimenez and Corona out, but said they’ll be last-minute decisions.
Mexico finished second in CONCACAF qualifying behind Canada — and ahead of the the United States — but Martino’s team scored only four goals in its final five qualifying matches despite having both Jiménez and Corona available.
Following the two California friendlies against Peru and Colombia, El Tri has won only two of its last seven matches.
“From the football perspective, we have to be more effective,” Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said. “We have done good matches, however we haven’t shown that in the score.”
El Tri, currently ranked No. 13 in the world, will play in Group C with No. 3 Argentina, No. 26 Poland and No. 51 Saudi Arabia.
Mexico will open against Poland and Robert Lewandowski on Nov. 22. Next up is Lionel Messi and Argentina on Nov. 26 before Saudi Arabia on Nov. 30.
Argentina is widely expected to advance out of the group. The opening match between Poland and Mexico should go a long way in determining the group’s other survivor.
Mexico fell 2-0 to Brazil in the round of 16 in Russia, marking the seventh straight time that El Tri has failed to reach the quarterfinals — or the fifth game — at soccer’s premier tournament.
Mexico has qualified for 17 World Cups, including the tournament in Qatar. The team reached the quarterfinals twice, first in 1970 and again in 1986. Mexico hosted both of those tournaments.
CHICARITO STAYS HOME
Even though Mexico is beset by injuries, Martino definitively announced before the September friendlies that Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez would not be part of the team’s World Cup squad.
Chicharito has played in three World Cups and is Mexico’s all-time leading scorer with 52 goals.
“In the case of Chicharito, we are simply going with other forwards,” Martino said. “We will try to choose the 26 players who are closest to our game.”
TIME MARCHES ON
Mexico appears to be leaning on its veteran players, including Ochoa, Herrera and Andrés Guardado, although the 26-man squad for the World Cup hasn’t been released.
Ochoa, 37, and Guardado, 26, have played in four World Cups. Herrera, 32, has played in two.
“I will always try to do my best for the national team,” Herrera said. “And when I realize that I’m not contributing, when I am not feeling comfortable, if I don’t feel well, I will raise my hand and retire.”
FACING THE CRITICS
Mexico, and Martino specifically, faced criticism heading into the World Cup for their results and a perceived lack of preparation. The disapproval grew louder following a 1-0 loss to Paraguay in late August.
Guardado told The Associated Press that social media amplifies pessimism among passionate fans. So does the media. But the games have yet to be played.
“I know that Mexico knows how to compete and that it always shows its face when the time comes. Now it’s time to show again,” Guardado said. “It will be very difficult, but I think we are ready to face the challenge we have in the World Cup and at least advance to the next phase.”
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