Mexico still has work to do after sealing 2018 World Cup spot
MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's World Cup qualifying campaign appears to have been easy.
Anyone looking from the outside in and seeing a team sitting top of the CONCACAF Hexagonal table on 17 points from seven games and with only two goals conceded -- both against the United States -- would assume that qualifying has been a gentle stroll.
But anyone watching Mexico through each game as it booked its place at Russia 2018 knows it was a grind.
The historic 2-1 victory in Columbus, Ohio last November against the United States set the tone, but not everyone remembers that coach Juan Carlos Osorio went into that game under immense pressure, with the 7-0 loss against Chile the previous summer still fresh.
The monumental win in the States was then followed by a dull 0-0 tie in Panama on a rain-soaked pitch. But four points from two tricky away trips represented an excellent start.
The return game against Panama on Friday in Estadio Azteca was similarly tight, again on a slippery surface. And El Tri once again managed to find a way to get the job done, securing the 1-0 victory through a second half goal from Hirving Lozano.
Osorio's methods -- especially the rotations and changes in formation -- have been heavily criticised, but they have given the Mexican players the tools to negotiate these often-ugly and difficult CONCACAF battles. Four years ago, El Tri was one dimensional and almost failed to make the World Cup. Now Mexico is adept at competing fiercely in these difficult CONCACAF games as a starting point to getting a result.
But Osorio and this Mexico team must now flip the page. The squad and coaching staff knows that while this qualifying campaign has been a notable success -- even with three games left -- there is much still to do.
The mission now goes beyond CONCACAF. Osorio has to shape the side into the best possible condition to reach at least the quarterfinal stage at Russia and end El Tri's run of going out in the round-of-16 at the last six consecutive World Cups.
"Now we have the dream of representing Mexico as positively as possible in the World Cup," said assistant coach Luis Pompilio Paez after Friday's game in a news conference. "We are invited to the dance and we want to dance as well as possible. A new stage starts now."
At least one question can now be answered with some certainty, barring any off-field problems: Osorio will be Mexico head coach at Russia 2018. After all the turmoil of the summer, the victory reaffirmed Osorio's position, although the Mexican federation has maintained that it wasn't in doubt. Still, the Colombian hasn't convinced fans, even with the exemplary World Cup qualifying campaign.
"It's very clear that many don't like Osorio's style, but we have been effective, we've known how to play World Cup qualifying, maybe not playing really well, but facing these types of rivals is very difficult," said captain Andres Guardado after the match.
Pompilio Paez suggested that the coaching staff accept the criticism, but believes the key has been the players buying into Osorio's methods.
"Many people don't like the style, all fans are potential managers, but the most important thing is how we have convinced the players," he added.
A look at the celebration of Lozano's goal on Friday hints at that. It involved all the substitutes and coaching staff. But it goes beyond that. This group of players may have been hit hard by the loss to Chile and the 4-1 Confederations Cup semifinal defeat against Germany, but there remains a belief and togetherness that is evident. And, to be fair, the players have universally come out and supported Osorio.
"Of course [we like Osorio's methods]," said winger Jurgen Damm after the match on Friday. "You see it in how the teams plays. We all have the possibility of playing and it is a great plus that he trusts all his players. We are with him until the end."
Will all that be good enough to take Mexico to the heights it wants to reach in Russia next summer?
A lot will depend on the draw, Mexico's injury situation and players' form coming into the tournament. El Tri may need a little luck with all three of those things.
But Mexico is certainly in much better shape than it was going into the last two World Cups and has a generation of players hungry to take advantage of what could be their last chance of international success in their prime.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.