One year on from 7-0 against Chile, Mexico lays down marker vs. Portugal
KAZAN, Russia -- It was a goal that meant more than a point. You could see that in the Mexican team's celebration and hear it from players' mouths as they exited Kazan Arena.
When Hector Moreno headed in a stoppage time equalizer to make it 2-2 against Portugal in his team's opening Group A match of the Confederations Cup, the goal felt like a release.
A loss here wouldn't have been a disaster. Portugal has beaten better teams than Mexico, and El Tri's upcoming group games against New Zealand and Russia are winnable.
But a defeat would have raised questions about Juan Carlos Osorio's ability to get the most out of his players when Mexico goes up against a major power.
The quality of El Tri's players would also have been debated. And the fact that the game came one year to the day since that 7-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario made the draw with Portugal a gauge of where Mexico has improved. It was a litmus test for how far the team has come and whether the same weaknesses La Roja exposed would surface again against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.
If the game was a test of those factors, Mexico passed. Osorio's team stayed true to its modern and attractive style -- as well parading the boldness to take the game to Portugal -- and the character to bounce back twice from going a goal down.
"[We showed] personality," captain Andres Guardado said afterward, when asked about the positives from the game. "Going toe-to-toe with the European champion, not backing down for anything and keeping looking for a goal even after twice going behind."
Guardado and other teammates suggested the draw felt good because of its last-gasp nature, but the PSV midfielder wasn't entirely happy because "we thought we would win."
"Analyzing the whole game, I think we deserved more, to win," Guardado said. "Because of the domination we had, the way we played out and always looked for a controlled path to goal. It speaks well of Mexico, of the work we are doing."
The problem Osorio and the players have is that Mexico rarely plays top-ranked opposition -- and even more rarely in an official competition outside of Europe -- accentuating the hype and the need to constantly prove itself when the big games do swing around.
"[People] always look to demerit the opponent and not praise Mexico," said Guardado. "It's about time that Mexico got the recognition and that bit of trust that we are doing things right and we're on the right path."
Guardado might well be right. The team arguably doesn't have the elite-level players of the very top national teams and certainly can't boast a Ronaldo, but Sunday's display backed up Osorio's thesis that El Tri can match any team in the world on its day. Mexico certainly deserved a point against Portugal.
Osorio fielded a starting team entirely made up of players based in Europe and Mexico flew out of the blocks. It held 73 percent of possessions in the first 15 minutes, according to InStat. The high defensive line was risky -- "it was complicated with much space in behind," said center-back Moreno -- especially with the likes of Ronaldo and Nani lurking.
And when El Tri went behind, it was difficult not to think of the way things had gone so very wrong in Santa Clara, California, 365 days ago against Chile. In that game, Osorio also had decided on using a 4-3-3 formation and attacked from the off, but things went downhill quickly after the first goal and Mexico look exposed.
But this time, El Tri bounced back, twice.
"You saw the way we played, [it was] very brave," said Javier Hernandez. "[We] try to play football, go on the front [foot], to press, score a lot of goals and thankfully we got one point."
Added goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa: "We played well because we made Portugal, the European champion, close up and play on the counterattack. We are happy because you can win, lose or draw, but while you play your style, character and football, you feel good."
Moreno pointed out that there is more than one similarity between Osorio's outlook and those of his former club managers Louis van Gaal and Mauricio Pochettino.
"The thing that they have most in common is always to try to take the initiative in games and play attacking football, whoever the opponent is," said the recent Roma signing.
Osorio has a pragmatic streak and won't shy away from changing his outlook depending on the opposition's strength. But he seems to have won over Mexico's players, and what we saw on Sunday was the essence of Mexican football. It was bold, technical, intense and good to watch. There is much work ahead, and the North American country needs to keep strengthening. There is a deficit in talent and depth in comparison with the very top nations, but El Tri fans should be assured that Mexico is on the right path.
Moreno's headed goal from a corner might not have been the prettiest, but it might turn out to be one of the most important in Osorio's 19 months in charge.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.