When the intercontinental playoff draw was made, everyone had the same hope: avoid South America. Having to play Colombia or Ecuador with a World Cup bid on the line isn't exactly a welcoming scenario. Well, reality proved to be even more terrifying: Uruguay.
So Mexico, who did little on their own to actually qualify for the playoff — and instead will be forever indebted to the United States for preserving their Brazilian dream — are thrilled to be playing New Zealand. But while New Zealand might not be Uruguay, they just might be the toughest team Mexico could play not named Uruguay. Anyone calling Mexico favorites is ignoring all of 2013.
At some point, a team has played poorly for long enough that they are no longer going through a rough patch, but simply a bad team. Mexico, a team with just seven wins in 25 matches since the start of the year, has reached that point. Spells and trends don't last 10 months.
Mexico can't score. They tallied just seven goals during the Hex and they've been shut out as many times as they've won in 2013. When teams like El Tri — teams who are inept at creating chances and finishing the opportunities they get — go up against teams that pack men behind the ball with a physical frontman, it's a recipe for disaster.
Enter New Zealand.
It's tough to get a great read on New Zealand because they haven't played a competitive match since winning Oceania in March, but they have always been defensively inclined. They are also plenty experienced, having played in the 2010 World Cup where, amazingly, they walked away as the tournament's lone undefeated team with three draws.
If there is one thing to count on seeing from the Kiwis it is men behind the ball — nine or 10 of them at a time. That combined with the presence of Chris Killen and/or Chris Wood, a pair of brutally physical strikers, could be a serious problem for Mexico. If there are two things that most strike fear in El Tri right now, they're a compact defense and power up front.
No team in CONCACAF plays quite as defensively as New Zealand and few match their physicality, but Panama comes closest, with a solid front-to-back defense and Blas Perez anchoring the entire team from up top. They might be more ambitious than the Kiwis, but Mexico did little in the way of threatening the Canaleros in the Hex and their results weren't overly impressive either. They managed just a scoreless draw in their first meeting and when they met again last week, it took a Raul Jimenez wonder goal to save them from another draw.
"Chicharito" Javier Hernandez is suspended for the first leg of the playoff, and that's probably a good thing for Mexico, who have watched their talisman flounder for the better part of the year. Meanwhile, Giovani dos Santos hasn't replicated his club form on the national stage and Andres Guardado hasn't even been called in. Jimenez and Oribe Peralta are their only attackers who seem to know where the goal is, but even they can't unlock a 10-man defense.
Even if Peralta and Jimenez can save El Tri's skin with a goal, that may not be enough. In Mexico's Hex finale, Bryan Ruiz and Alvaro Saborio exposed just how vulnerable the El Tri defense is to big, strong strikers. Rafa Marquez was a disaster in defense and probably should have been sent off against the Ticos, while Hugo Ayala had no answer for what Ruiz, then Saborio when he entered the game, asked of him.
The Kiwis are everything Mexico don't want to see; they're perfectly assembled to frustrate their impotent attack and exploit their issues at the back. They might not have many goals in them, but it's entirely possible that over two legs, one or two goals is all it will take to send New Zealand to the World Cup at El Tri's expense.
Mexico thought the U.S. had saved their World Cup dreams with their dramatic stoppage time equalizer, but all it did was break Panamanian hearts and earn El Tri a stay of execution. New Zealand is waiting, and they look the part of dream-crushers.