USA and Mexico prepare for vital World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium
Controversial Concacaf qualifying campaign reaches Mexico City with meeting of two heavyweights equally in need of a win
The United States and Mexico will meet in a World Cup qualifier in Mexico City on Tuesday night, and both teams could use a boost. In the final stage of Concacaf qualifying for next year's World Cup, which will be held in Brazil, only three of the six teams in contention will lock up a berth in the finals. The fourth team will land in a November playoff game against the Oceania winner, New Zealand.
Mexico need a win after disappointing draws with Honduras on Friday and Jamaica in February. The Hondurans, who beat the USA 2-1 in February, lead the qualifying table with four points from two games; the USA are second, with Panama, Jamaica and Mexico tied for third and Costa Rica bringing up the rear.
"We need to work on everything, the technical, tactical and mental elements," said Mexico's coach, José Manuel de la Torre. "We can't leave anything out."
The USA moved into second place after beating Costa Rica 1-0 in a snowstorm last week. There followed a protest from the Costa Rica soccer federation, which said that the "physical integrity" of players had been affected by playing in the snowstorm in Commerce City, Colorado, and demanded a replay. On Tuesday, Fifa turned down the Costa Rican appeal, saying that it had not been filed according to regulations.
The USA coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, said on Monday that the Americans respected Mexico, which would make the match "one of those games you are hungry for". "It's an awesome opportunity," he added, "and we want to embrace the moment and give them a real game, to battle them."
The game is at the intimidating Azteca Stadium, where the Americans have only beaten Mexico once – in a friendly last August, in which Michael Orozco Fiscal scored his first international goal, in the 80th minute, and goalkeeper Tim Howard made a series of vital saves. A US victory on Tuesday night would mark the first Mexican defeat at home in a World Cup qualifier since a 2002 match against Costa Rica. The two teams are still backed to fill two of the three spots – neither has missed a World Cup in two decades.
"We have the best two teams in CONCACAF battling each other. We have respect for them and they have it for us," Klinsmann said.
The USA have one new injury problem, the Schalke 04 midfielder Jermaine Jones being ruled out after suffering a sprained left ankle, which also required two stitches, in the first half of the game against Costa Rica. Jones, who played on until the 83rd minute in Colorado, did not travel with the team to Mexico. On Monday, Klinsmann added Orozco Fiscal to his squad. The centre-back, who has five caps and plays in Mexico for San Luis, drove from Puebla late Monday afternoon but did not arrive in time for the stadium training.
Hernández holds key for Mexico
Mexico's hopes will to some extent rest upon the shoulders of Javier Hernández, the relatively slight Manchester United forward who is known as "Chicharito", or "Little Pea". Hernández is by far the most deadly striker in the CONCACAF region and his two goals against Honduras, in Friday's 2-2 draw, took his national team tally to an impressive 30 in 45 matches.
"I don't like to talk about goals, for me it is points, results that count," the forward said on Monday, but Omar Gonzalez, the Mexican-American central defender who will line up against Hernández, was well aware of the challenge facing him and a makeshift, injury-hit US defence.
"He's just a great goal-scorer. He's very mobile and is constantly on the move. During crosses, you can look back and you see him one place and the next thing you know he's somewhere else," the LA Galaxy defender said. "You just have to be able to keep your eye on him, and the ball at the same time. If you can manage to do that and play tough on him, I think we hopefully won't let him get a goal."
Hernández scored Mexico's opening goal against Honduras with a brilliant, angled, glancing header after a jinking run down the left and a cross from the winger Andrés Guardado. The second goal was classic "Chicharito", escaping his marker, timing his run to the near post perfectly and getting on the end of a cross from the left with a clinical finish. It was a strike that recalled Klinsmann in his prime for Germany – instinctive movement and a killer touch.
"He is a player who is fun to watch. There is a reason he is playing for Manchester United – because he is good," Klinsmann said. "So, we watch him, we scout him, we talk about him and we are sure that our centre-backs will take care of him."
The US forward Hérculez Gómez, who plays in the Mexican league for Santos Laguna, believes Hernández's strength is as much in his attitude as his instinctive ability in the penalty area.
"He is mentally strong, I think he has taken advantage of every opportunity that has come his way and that speaks volumes to his mental strength. When benched, when doubted he just keeps coming back," said Gómez. "From a striker's perspective – and for me, my whole game is movement, his movements are unreal, amazing. He finds gaps, spaces, makes himself available, his goals sometimes aren't the prettiest but he is such an effective player with his movement."
Nullifying the threat Hernández poses will require the US to deal with Guardado and Mexico's other creative force, Giovani Dos Santos. The two players ripped the US apart in the 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup final, which Mexico won 4-2. Hernández didn't score in that game but Geoff Cameron, who is expected to start at right back for the US on Tuesday, said it would require total concentration to keep him at bay.
"Get tight to him, keep close to him, his movement is fantastic – he kind of reads off your movement," said the Stoke City player. "He's just got a knack for goals, he's always sniffing around, you have just got to be prepared, keep an eye out all the time, because you never know where he is."
Costa Rica play Jamaica and Honduras play Panama in Tuesday's other Concacaf matches.
Mexico v USA kicks-off at 10.30pm ET – Follow Graham Parker's live blog here at guardiannews.com
Filed under: Euro 2012
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