Raul Jimenez scores as Mexico beats Poland 1-0 to finish on a high
Mexico defeated Poland 1-0 on Monday in El Tri's final game of 2017. Here are three takes from the friendly:
1. Mexico ends 2017 on a high
This 1-0 win was significant, even in a friendly. It was another rare away game for Mexico, another chance to prove in Europe that this team has improved under Juan Carlos Osorio.
The answer was conclusive: Mexico made seven changes from the game against Belgium in Brussels and was the better team over the 90 minutes. The victory was deserved and there was a confidence flowing through the Mexican side, an assuredness about going to a difficult stadium and knowing how to get the result.
Javier Hernandez, Jesus Corona, Giovani dos Santos, Hector Herrera and Edson Alvarez were all ruled out for the match, but Osorio's experimental XI maintained the team's style in terms of keeping the ball and suffocating the opponent's efforts to get out of their half. Mexico enjoyed 62 percent of possession as Osorio changed to a 3-5-2 formation for Mexico's final game of 2017.
Javier Aquino was a surprise starter up front, and the Tigres player -- usually a winger -- played a key role as he burst into the penalty area in the 13th minute, with Raul Jimenez eventually lashing in the winner from 12 yards. Poland's Piotr Zielinski should've equalized in the 33rd, but in a game of few real chances, Mexico kept a confidence-boosting clean sheet. It was the first timeEl Tri hadn't conceded in its last five games.
The key to victory was the way Mexico competed. Left-back Jesus Gallardo was winning balls in the air, the Mexican team was organized as it pressed Poland and it stopped the European side having time to think on the ball.
In the end, it was Mexico that looked more likely to get a second than Poland the equalizer, even with each side ringing the changes.
This game won't silence Osorio's critics, but it does send Mexico into 2018 with a sense that the team is on the right path and growing nicely towards the World Cup. El Tri ends 2017 with 15 wins, five losses and five draws, which isn't bad, especially taking into account that for a period in the summer there was huge pressure on Osorio's job.
2. Guardado Mexico's midfield maestro
The link between the team's strong performance against Belgium in the 3-3 draw on Friday and the starting XI that featured in Gdansk was Andres Guardado. It is often forgotten that Mexico took on New Zealand in the CONCACAF-OFC playoff for a spot at the 2014 World Cup without Guardado, or a single Europe-based player.
Exactly four years on from that first leg in Estadio Azteca against New Zealand, it is unthinkable that someone like Guardado wouldn't be called on for such a crucial match. The Europe-based players are now very much the core of the side.
There isn't a list of specific moments that stood out against Poland. He didn't smash a shot against the bar, dribble past three defenders to set up a goal or really do anything that will make the highlight reel. But Guardado's development from four years ago, when he was a doubt to start at the 2014 World Cup until Luis Montes was unfortunately injured, has been nothing short of spectacular.
The midfield maestro was always offering himself for the ball against Poland, is willing to receive with opponents pressurizing, presses hard when not in possession and, crucially, transmits confidence as captain to the rest of the team. If in doubt, give the ball to El Principito.
With Herrera out with injury against Poland, there was even more responsibility on Guardado's shoulders, and once again he responded.
There used to be talk about a leadership void in El Tri. Guardado is now filling it with consummate ease.
The performance of Guardado's midfield partners also deserves a mention here.
LA Galaxy's Jonathan dos Santos was decent, without excelling, and tired in the second half. If he doesn't play a competitive game between now and March, the 27-year-old needs to hit the ground running in MLS.
In the holding role, Diego Reyes was much criticized for his performance against Belgium -- after Eden Hazard turned him for the opening goal. Against Poland, Reyes was more assured. There are some obvious limitations in playing Reyes there, especially with Mexico intent on playing the ball out from the back, but he shielded the defense reasonably well and continues to be an option in the position.
3. Poland's absentees weigh heavy
The crowd inside Stadion Gdansk booed the home team off at halftime with the team 1-0 down. The stadium was almost full, but likely when many bought their tickets they would've expected more of the country's star names to be featured.
Lukasz Piszczek, Robert Lewandowski, Arkadiusz Milik, Kamil Glik, Kamil Grosicki and Grzegorz Krychowiak were all missing, and it showed.
The Polish side struggled to match Mexico's intensity and appeared lost in the experimental 3-4-3 formation that Adam Nawalka employed. Nawalka was nervous on the bench.
When the home team tried to play out from the back, Mexico pressed in unison, with Guardado and Dos Santos pushing forward to cut off the second pass from the defense into the midfield.
Poland certainly didn't look like a side that is ranked sixth in the world. Mexico deserves credit for that, but any side stripped of at least six usual starters is highly likely to suffer in terms of performance.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.