Mexico may have been a mess all of 2013, needing help from the United States just to finish fourth in the Hex and qualify for the World Cup playoff against New Zealand, but all is well with El Tri. They will beat the Kiwis easily and book their ticket to Brazil.
After all, Mexico is Mexico.
That is the attitude Miguel Herrera has taken into Mexico's two-legged playoff, claiming at a press conference that "we don't have to worry about anything." That miserable 2013? Forget about it. Having an entirely domestic roster that leaves Javier Hernandez, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado and Giovani dos Santos out? Whatever. Being 180 minutes from missing the World Cup? So what.
Mexico is Mexico.
One thing Mexico does have going for them is an opponent that has not played a competitive match in eight months, and that's generously calling Oceania World Cup qualifying competitive. New Zealand is also without captain Winston Reid, who is injured. On paper, El Tri should have no problem with the Kiwis -- they are ranked 24th in the world, while New Zealand is 79th -- but on paper, Mexico would have also finished first in the Hex.
1. How much is home-field worth? For decades, it was nearly impossible to beat Mexico at the Azteca, but they managed just one win at home in the Hex and that came on a wondrous Raul Jimenez bicycle kick that rescued an otherwise forgetful performance. Herrera is willfully oblivious to Mexico's home struggles, stating, "We'll do it here. I'm sure that Mexico will get the advantage so we can relax in Wellington and finish the job." He cited the Azteca's altitude as the principle reason that El Tri will succeed, and why he called in an entirely domestic squad that was used to being 7,943 feet above sea level, and he better be right because Mexico can't afford to head to New Zealand without a lead.
2. Where will Mexico's goals come from? El Tri were putrid in the final third in the Hex, scoring just seven goals in 10 matches, but that attack was made up of Chicharito, dos Santos and Guardado most of the time. Herrera has tossed them aside, instead turning to Jimenez, Carlos Pena and Luis Montes to find goals, but the most important player will be one of the holdover from the Chepo de la Torre and Victor Manuel Vuceitch eras -- Oribe Peralta. The Santos Laguna man scored three goals in the Hex, tops on the team, and has been Mexico's only consistent goalscorer. Peralta and Jimenez will be charged with scoring the goals, but they need help from Pena and Montes in particular to turn an attack that has been stagnant in the final third into one that can't be flummoxed simply by numbers behind the ball.
3. How ambitious will New Zealand be at the Azteca? The Kiwis have a well-earned reputation for being conservative and packing men behind the ball, which few expect them to buck in Mexico City. After all, a draw at the Azteca would be as good as a win for New Zealand, so going conservative makes sense, but will they even bother trying to nick a goal on the counterattack? That's the question for a Mexico defense that has been susceptible to the counter. If the Kiwis get the least bit ambitious, they may be able to throw El Tri into panic.
4. Can Mexico defend with three? Herrera is bringing his three-man backline with him from Club America to Mexico, which could present problems for a team that hasn't kept a clean sheet since July. That Rafa Marquez and Maza Rodriguez are going to make up two-thirds of the backline doesn't do much to inspire confidence, either. Both have been somewhere between inconsistent and calamitous for El Tri of late, and they will likely have to defend in space against New Zealand on the rare occasions that the Kiwis threaten because Herrera likes to send numbers forward, which could be a problem for the slow-footed veterans.
5. Will New Zealand's physicality cause Mexico problems? Mexico has failed to deal with physical teams in the Hex and now they will face a team as tough as any they have come across in qualifying. Chris Wood and Shane Smeltz are both bruising forwards and Ivan Vicelich is as physical of a defender as there is, while Michael McGlinchey anchors tough tackling midfield. The Kiwis do have Marco Rojas, a fleet-footed, diminutive winger, but the majority of their players are going to rely on their physicality. Whether El Tri choose to match the Kiwis or beat them for pace, they have to keep from being ineffective in the 18 and losing long balls to big forwards that spark the counterattack, as has been the case against bruising teams this year.