Mexico falls to Honduras, fails to do U.S. favor in World Cup qualifying
Mexico blew a 2-1 lead half-time lead as Honduras pulled off a remarkable second-half comeback to defeat El Tri 3-2 and advance to the intercontinental playoff against Australia for a place in the World Cup.
1. Mexico fails to return U.S. favor
Four years ago, "San Zusi" saved Mexico's skin with a late, late goal against Panama to drag Mexico past Panama and into a playoff against New Zealand. As if the script were directed in Hollywood, Mexico appeared set to return the favor on Tuesday. But Mexico couldn't manage a result in San Pedro Sula and crumbled in the second half against Honduras. In the process, Mexico failed to beat Costa Rica's all-time record of 23 points in the Hexagonal and lost its unbeaten record in qualifying for Russia 2018 at the final hurdle.
True to coach Juan Carlos Osorio's pregame words, there was no sense at all that Mexico was already qualified to the World Cup and looking to ease off the gas. El Tri played with the same intensity as in Columbus, Ohio, when Mexico defeated the United States 2-1 in the first game of the Hexagonal. It's just that the same quality was not apparent and Honduras were on a mission of their own.
Osorio surprised -- what is new? -- with a 3-1-4-2 formation, giving up Mexico's usual focus on the wings. Carlos Vela started in an unaccustomed position on the left of midfield, while at the back, there was a rare start for Oswaldo Alanis on the left side of the three center-backs. But after Mexico weathered Honduras' early aerial assault and asserted itself, El Tri began to control the match.
A flowing move involving Vela, Miguel Layun and Raul Jimenez was finished expertly by Peralta in the 17th minute. The goal seemed to knock the wind a little out of Honduras, and at least until Alberth Elis headed in 10 minutes before half-time, Honduras believed the World Cup was again possible.
Vela finished from an exquisite ball over the top from Hector Herrera in the 39th, but Honduras kept pushing, and the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano erupted when an Eddie Hernandez shot bounced back off the crossbar and in off the back of Ochoa's head to level the scores at 2-2.
The momentum shifted. Mexico became sloppy in possession, and the Honduras fans urged their team on, with the fact that the United States were losing in Trinidad & Tobago surely filtering through. When Romell Quioto took advantage of some more poor defending from Mexico, the place exploded.
San Pedro Sula is no easy place to go, and that was shown again as Mexico wilted in the second half. Osorio will be very disappointed with the way his team crumbled under the hosts' attacks, but that disappointment pales in comparison to that of Bruce Arena and the United States, whose awful qualifying campaign meant they were relying on Mexico to do them a favor.
2. Defensive issues hinder El Tri
Mexico had conceded only four goals in its previous nine games in the Hexagonal, but Honduras were able to prey upon El Tri's defense seemingly at will. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that without a couple of high-quality interventions from Guillermo Ochoa in the first half, the result could have been worse for Mexico.
And so, question marks will once again be raised about Alanis' future with the national team. The ease with which Elis breezed past him in the 14th minute was reminiscent of that dark night against Germany in the Confederations Cup semifinal. Osorio is determined to have left-footed center-back options to back up and/or rotate with the suspended Hector Moreno, and Alanis is probably the second best in the position. However, that doesn't mean he is international quality.
However, it would be unfair to single out Alanis. Fellow center-backs Hugo Ayala and Nestor Araujo didn't exactly instill confidence, while both wing-backs/wide midfielders Gallardo and Layun were at fault for Honduras' second and third goals, respectively.
It is usually difficult to really judge Mexico's defense in CONCACAF because so few teams come out and actually attack. It has failed the test in international tournaments when playing against Germany and Chile, and once again, the warning signs were there as Honduras ditched its usual defensive style and came out to attack Mexico.
3. Honduras inspired against all the odds
Whatever the criticism of El Tri, the night belonged to Honduras and Jorge Luis Pinto, whose team never really looked like just CONCACAF representatives for the World Cup until the Central American side turned it on Tuesday against Mexico with an epic and historic performance.
There were some pretty disappointing results on the way to Russia 2018 for Honduras, including a 6-0 loss to the United States, a 3-0 defeat to Mexico and a home loss to Panama. But Pinto's side was inspired against a Mexico team determined to finish the Hexagonal undefeated. Elis was a constant thorn in Mexico's side, and while the direct tactics aren't to everyone's taste, El Tri simply couldn't cope with Honduras' intensity, especially in the second half.
In some ways, it was a shame that Honduras was so defensive for most of the Hexagonal because playing like it did against Mexico and last week against Costa Rica, it showed that there is enough quality. Perhaps if Honduras had been more open, it would now be automatically in the World Cup, instead of facing a playoff against Australia next month. But Pinto will take what he has, given that he began Tuesday's game hoping for a win and for other results to fall their way.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.