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 By Tom Marshall

Mexico cruised through World Cup qualifying but need big-game edge

Herculez Gomez tries to make sense of Mexican legend Rafa Marquez being sanctioned for drug trafficking.

Qualifying for Russia 2018 turned out to be a breeze for Mexico, but El Tri's goal always extends beyond simply reaching the World Cup. For a country that has reached the Round of 16 in the last six editions of the tournament, the target, as always, is to break the glass ceiling and make the quarterfinals.

Here are five issues that coach Juan Carlos Osorio will have to find solutions to if Mexico is to do that:

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The big-game hurdle

The theory goes that Osorio's team has done well in the confines of CONCACAF qualifying, but when it steps up onto the world stage it has come unstuck. The 7-0 defeat to Chile in the quarterfinal of the Copa Centenario is Exhibit A, with the 4-1 loss to Germany in the Confederations Cup semifinal further evidence.

The Chile loss was particularly worrisome due to its nature, and a "mental coach" was hired after that. But Mexico's trend of falling short of the elite is not new. El Tri's combined record in 146 games against the eight countries that have won a World Cup is 29 wins, 43 draws and 74 losses. In other words, Mexico has long been a respected team, without really being feared.

The problem Osorio has in fixing it is that there are no competitive matches between now and the first group stage game to work on the issues.

Trips to Belgium and Poland in the November international window will be crucial for building confidence. And in the March friendlies, and ahead of the World Cup in late May and June, the Mexican federation is trying to get the highest quality opponent possible.

They may only be friendlies in the general scheme of things, but for Mexico the games are of utmost importance. El Tri will almost certainly have to overcome a big team if it is to reach the quarterfinals in Russia and needs every bit of confidence it can soak up between now and June.

Rafa Marquez
Questions about Rafa Marquez's level of play are bound to emerge, but his leadership on El Tri can not be replaced.

Rafa Marquez's eligibility

There have been more positive rumblings surrounding Rafa Marquez's possible return to the field following his sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department in August for alleged ties to a drug trafficking organization.

Before being sidelined, the 38-year-old Marquez was on course to join an elite group of two -- Antonio Carbajal and Lothar Matthaus -- who have appeared at five World Cups. And Marquez was hoping to become the first player in history to captain a side at five editions of the tournament.

Marquez has been allowed back to train with Atlas, but even if he is given permission to return to Mexico's first division between now and next May, there has to be a major question mark about whether the veteran can reach the level required to play a significant part.

However, his absence would leave a leadership void. No one can deny his influence around camp.

Finding a solution for the holding midfield role

Osorio has had difficulties in finding a solid and reliable holding midfielder for the his preferred 4-3-3 formation. The Colombian manager is asking a lot. He wants someone who is strong in the air, can dictate the team's play and be alert to opposition counters -- a continued weakness for El Tri.

Diego Reyes, Hector Herrera, Jesus Molina, Jesus Duenas and Marquez have all played in the position, without anyone making a true claim to it.

Herrera is the closest, but while he is good in possession, there are doubts about whether he fulfills the defensive criteria required for the role.

There aren't many other options, at least if you consider that Osorio has been reluctant to try out smaller players there like Jonathan dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Jose Juan Vazquez. Versatile 19-year-old Edson Alvarez is capable of playing as a holding midfielder should Osorio give him the opportunity.

Key players getting minutes for club sides abroad

This is something Osorio can't really do much about. He laid down a challenge to his squad after the Confederations Cup and asked them to do everything to become important figures with their club sides.

But so far this season, regular Mexico starters like Miguel Layun, Reyes, Raul Jimenez and Hector Moreno have found playing time difficult to come by with clubs, and Marco Fabian and Carlos Salcedo have been injured.

In MLS, brothers Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos haven't managed to make the impact that was hoped for.

Finding defensive balance

One of the complexities of Osorio is how he attempts to balance Mexico's outwardly offensive philosophy -- "We want to be a team that deserves to win," is a phrase he regularly uses -- with his selections designed to harness opposition strong points.

Most notably, Osorio often employs center-backs like Salcedo, Reyes, Oswaldo Alanis and Alvarez at full-back, while the full-back on the opposite flank, typically Layun, is given more freedom to move forward. A back four swiftly becomes a back three in the fluid system.

There are nods toward Pep Guardiola in what Osorio is trying to do, but whether the players are there for Mexico to make it truly work is a question still to be answered. The likely starting back four right now is Salcedo at right-back, Nestor Araujo and Moreno as the center-backs, and Layun on the left.

It isn't a bad unit, but it is Mexico's weakest area. Working on getting the chemistry and balance right at the back should be one of Osorio's top priorities.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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