These are strange times in Mexican soccer.
Last month's triumph over the United States in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final was greeted with predictable joy south of the border and the celebrative parties lasted long and loud. Yet the newfound optimism brought about by the 5-0 rout of the Americans may prove to be temporary if the USA successfully digs El Tri into a deeper hole in World Cup qualifying.
Missing out on South Africa next year will become a serious possibility for Mexico if the U.S. comes away from the Estadio Azteca with a draw or a win on Wednesday. Six points from five games in the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying has left Mexico in fourth place in the six-team pool. The top three finishers progress directly to the World Cup, while the No. 4 finisher goes into a playoff against a South American team.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and Mexico coach Javier Aguirre has reached for his ultimate wildcard – Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Blanco has so often been a talismanic figure for club and country, but the Chicago Fire striker's aging legs and fiery temper mean his selection comes with a sizable element of risk or reward. Aguirre is counting on Blanco's spirit and attitude to rub off on his Mexican teammates, and Blanco has been making all the right noises in the lead-up to the game.
"Qualifying for the World Cup is the only option," the former Club America star said. "As a team we have to do whatever it takes. Missing out on the biggest tournament in the world is not an acceptable outcome for Mexico.
"I have belief in this team but that alone is not enough. It is our duty to demonstrate on the field the extent of our abilities."
Blanco is the kind of character who can incite opponents just by his mere presence. He certainly gets the competitive juices of the USA players flowing, much in the same way Landon Donovan does with the Mexican players. The 36-year-old Blanco will dive and push and cajole the referees, but he is capable of a flash of brilliance at any time.
However, the fact Aguirre is likely to go down the Blanco path when he selects his final lineup shows just how badly he feels his team is in need of inspiration. Even though Blanco commands ultimate respect in the Mexico locker room, there is always the possibility that his mentality could unravel. For every game-changing performance with Mexico, Club America or Fire, there has been a controversial incident involving a feud with a coach or teammate or a caution for diving.
Rarely has El Tri needed a moment of Blanco magic so badly. Anything other than a victory against the USA would increase Mexico's jeopardy, especially with a tough visit to Costa Rica to follow.
With third-place Honduras playing both of its next two games at home, Mexico has to remain within striking distance at the very least.
For once, the rivalry with the United States is secondary to the dire consequences of defeat.
"We know of the mental strength and of the USA and they will arrive at Azteca to try to win the match," said Mexican captain Rafael Marquez, who is expected to miss the game because of injury.
"Of course it is an important game because of the rivalry but there is a bigger picture," he added. "We have to beat United States because a victory will give us more peace in our quest to qualify. We will be at home, so we cannot forgive any mistakes or mishaps."
- Cuauhtemoc Blanco