Mexico set to eliminate host Russia, but can they handle the pressure?
KAZAN, Russia -- The scenarios are simple. If Mexico wins or ties host Russia in Kazan on Saturday, El Tri will advance from Group A in the Confederations Cup. Lose and the criticism -- which is already fierce -- will rain down on Mexico, who will have failed to reach the expected goals in major tournaments for two consecutive summers.
This match is being framed as "judgement day" for Juan Carlos Osorio and his Mexico team, however unfair that might seem.
"We can't play with the fear of losing," said Andres Guardado, one of Mexico's captains, at Friday's news conference. The PSV Eindhoven midfielder spoke of understanding the pressure that accompanies his team and without losing his cool, launched a tirade against the media coverage that Mexico attracts.
"Those of us who have been in the national team for some time know it's always been like that and we are focused on playing a good game and qualifying," continued Guardado. "Whether we play poorly or well, they always seek to criticize. We don't have a problem with what is said."
A late Hector Moreno goal sealed an encouraging draw for Mexico in its Group A opener but there was a backlash against Osorio making eight changes to face a physical New Zealand side, which El Tri defeated 2-1 after coming from a half-time deficit.
Now comes the big one. This is the type of test Osorio wants for Mexico, who plays almost all its games in the CONCACAF region and only rarely steps out of its comfort zone. Everything is against El Tri here: the domestic media is on the team's back despite Mexico going into the game top of Group A on goal difference, the crowd will be supporting the home side and El Tri is a long way from the safe environs of North America, fighting for its survival in a major tournament.
Even the temperature has dropped in Kazan, while Russian fans have been encouraged by their team's performance against Portugal. It's the kind of situation Osorio has stressed will be helpful to his Mexico squad and the national team in general.
"I honestly think that this is a perfect scenario for Mexican football," said Osorio, when questioned about the occasion. "We play away from home against the host team with a lot of support from their fans and fighting for qualification."
Osorio added that Mexico needs to control the game, describing it as "a unique opportunity for Mexican football" and highlighting "resilience" as a key trait in his squad.
The Mexico manager vigorously defended his rotation policy on Friday, indicating that it was necessary against a direct and physical New Zealand side. The casualties of that encounter were defenders Carlos Salcedo -- who requires shoulder surgery and will be out for three months -- and possibly Hector Moreno, who Osorio said is in a "recovery process" and may not be fit to face Russia.
After the wholesale changes against Russia, Osorio will likely revert to a starting XI similar to that which started against Portugal in the team's opening game. Guillermo Ochoa is set to return in goal, with important figures like Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Guardado, Jonathan dos Santos and Diego Reyes all fully rested for the crunch game. That's the flip-side to the criticism of the rotation policy.
The potential absence of Moreno is a problem for Osorio, with Oswaldo Alanis the natural replacement but not with the same quality as the Roma center-back. And with Salcedo out, the right-back position may be problematic.
If you were to predict the Mexico side, it'll probably be a 4-3-3 formation with Layun at left-back, Reyes at right-back and Nestor Araujo and Alanis as the center-back partnership (if Moreno isn't fit). In midfield, Hector Herrera has been increasingly authoritative in the holding role with the intense duo of Guardado and Jonathan dos Santos either side of him with more attacking briefs.
Up front, the fact that Raul Jimenez has played both matches suggests the time could be ripe for Hirving Lozano to make his first appearance of the tournament, although Javier Aquino was outstanding against New Zealand and may have earned his spot on the left wing. Vela has become a key player for El Tri in 2017 and will surely be on the right, with Hernandez set to lead the line.
Osorio was full of praise for Russia and it should be fascinating to see if the home nation, with fans behind it, tries to attack Mexico from the start. El Tri has averaged a very high 67 percent possession over its last five games, according to InStat, compared to Russia's 42 percent, suggesting that Mexico will be the ones taking the initiative.
"We'll need to control the game and to prove to ourselves that we can compete under such difficult circumstances," concluded Osorio. "If we can do it, we'll be taking a step forward. We want to show that we can do it against any opponent, regardless of its style."
If Mexico can take that step forward, El Tri will be in Russia for another eight days and will most likely face Chile or Germany in the Confederations Cup semifinal. If Mexico does lose for the third time over Osorio's 26 games in charge, however, the questions about where this national team stands will once again be heard.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.