Osorio, Mexico hope to ease building pressure with win against Portugal
MOSCOW -- Torrential rain and storms greeted the Mexican national team as it touched down in Moscow on Friday afternoon, providing an easy metaphor for the fallout from El Tri's 4-1 loss to Germany on Thursday in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup.
It has seemed like the snipers have been holding fire, waiting patiently for El Tri to fall before pulling the trigger. It almost happened in the opening Group A 2-2 draw against Portugal, then again against New Zealand, but it was the Germans who clinically took advantage of Mexico's debilities at the back and lack of bite upfront.
Since then, former players such as Hugo Sanchez, as well as pundits, have taken shots at coach Juan Carlos Osorio. Why did he use Raul Jimenez on the right wing? Why was Oswaldo Alanis -- a center-back -- played at left-back? What was the point in having Carlos Vela return from international exile if he's not going to play the really big games?
Osorio has been a divisive figure so far in his 20 months in charge of Mexico. There are those who think he is on the right path and has won over the players, and that the Mexican national team is a much more serious and professional place than in the days of Miguel Herrera. After all, wasn't Mexico the underdog against a Germany side packed with talent? But there are growing concerns from the doubters, who don't believe in Osorio's methodology -- especially the rotations -- and point to the 4-1 loss to Germany and the 7-0 defeat to Chile in 2016 as evidence that Osorio won't be able to take this Mexico team to the holy grail of the quarterfinals game at next summer's World Cup.
Almost every major website has led with a "Should Osorio continue?" headline, and even Spanish mental coach Imanol Ibarrondo took some flak on social media after he wrote a tweet stating: "You aren't as special as they say you are when you win, nor as bad as they make you feel when you lose. Successful and failure, such big imposters!"
All of which gives Sunday's third-place game against Portugal in Spartak Stadium a little bit more of an edge than it otherwise would have, at least for Mexico. A loss, especially a heavy one, would provide more evidence that Mexico can't step up, even if there isn't, in theory, a lot riding on a game for which Portugal's leader Cristiano Ronaldo won't even be around.
But when Osorio took to the microphone for Saturday's pregame news conference, the tone was positive, and he avoided mention of the critics.
"It is a new opportunity to play against the European champion," he said. "We need to play this type of game."
Osorio remained calm and suggested that Mexico and Mexican players still need the type of experience the players are gaining at the Confederations Cup. He's also confident that Mexico can eventually make the step up to the world elite, if a process is given time.
"At some point, Mexico is going to make that step," said Osorio. "It happened to Spain before they won the World Cup. ... Portugal didn't win until they won the European cup; Chile at the Japan and Korea World Cup -- they had the worst qualification with 12 points. [Fifteen] years later, they have won the Copa America twice, so I think that will happen eventually. Hopefully, we'll continue, too."
The manager was backed by his captain Rafa Marquez, who implied Mexico not making an impact on the world stage is more to do with the way the game is run in Mexico than Osorio's decisions at the Confederations Cup.
"There are a lot of things that we have to do in Mexico," Marquez said. "Unfortunately, it's a business that maybe only benefits the owners of the clubs and not so much the footballers. Maybe they have to let players leave abroad a bit more and have faith in the Mexican youngsters and in youth systems."
Osorio said he will play a similar side to the one that faced Portugal in the tie exactly two weeks ago last Sunday, although there will inevitably be rotations. It wouldn't be surprising if Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Herrera, Hector Moreno, Javier Hernandez and Jonathan dos Santos are all rested.
Rodolfo Cota or Alfredo Talavera could come in as goalkeeper, while Luis Reyes could be used at left-back, with Nestor Araujo and Oswaldo Alanis the center-backs and Miguel Layun or even Jurgen Damm on the right.
Marquez is in line to start his first game of the tournament as the holding midfielder, with Andres Guardado and Marco Fabian -- if the eye injury he picked up in training on Saturday isn't too bad -- ahead of the captain in midfield
Upfront, Carlos Vela or Giovani dos Santos will likely be on the right, with Hirving Lozano on the left and Oribe Peralta as the main striker.
If Mexico can defeat Portugal, it wouldn't clear the muddied waters and change the minds of those who have raged against Osorio and his running of the Mexican national team. That being said, it would at least provide some breathing space before El Tri's young alternative squad embarks on its Gold Cup campaign.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.