Tom Marshall: Change of tournament, change of fortune for Mexico?

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Tom Marshall: Change of tournament, change of fortune for Mexico?
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Tom Marshall: Change of tournament, change of fortune for Mexico?

Winger Andres Guardado is hoping - like the rest of the Mexico - that being a continent removed from the pressure cooker of the Estadio Azteca and CONCACAF will prove just what El Tri needs to click in the Confederations Cup.

“We’re trying to leave it to one side, change the chip a little -- change the oxygen tank for a purer one, without so much weight,” Guardado said in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday ahead of Sunday’s opener against Italy.

The 26-year-old Valencia player summed up Mexico’s recent plight with poetic aplomb not usually associated with soccer players.

Of course, it’s no secret that El Tri has struggled in 2013 to put together performances and that improvement is paramount. This Mexico side is still judged by that performance at the 2011 Gold Cup final, but the truth is the side has hit nowhere near that standard for some time.

The coincidence is that Mexico’s Confederations Cup place was cemented in that final, in front of almost 95,000 fans in the Rose Bowl, when El Tri went two down after 25 minutes to the United States, but regrouped to produce a breath-taking 4-2 victory capped off by a fine solo goal from Giovani Dos Santos.

Those halcyon days seem a long time ago for Mexico.

El Tri is now in a slump, scoring just six goals in nine games in 2013 and winning just once. Pressure is rising quickly on coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre and games against two of the world’s best teams (Italy and Brazil) and a strong challenger in Japan could legitimately be the coach’s last if things start to go disastrously.

The biggest test for Chepo is injecting confidence back in the squad. In that, he is aided by the occasion. El Tri should be fired up for the game on Sunday against Italy inside one of the most iconic stadia in world soccer – the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

Fixtures against top quality opposition mean El Tri will experience almost polar opposite games compared to recent matches in CONCACAF, in which teams have tended to park the bus.

Italy has long-ditched the catenaccio style in favor of a freer-flowing game. The Azzurri is unlikely to sit back against Mexico and that should – despite the obvious danger of Italy’s offense – help El Tri breath more easily. Chepo will hope the extra space will lead to more chances.

In terms of who plays, options are limited at this stage. While there have been calls for a change of system, the only really crucial decision is whether Dos Santos slots into an attacking midfield spot behind Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, or whether Aldo de Nigris will accompany the Manchester United striker in a 4-4-2.

There is also a dilemma over who should accompany Jesus Zavala in the center of midfield. Gerardo Torrado is the more solid, experienced option, but Hector Herrera offers more going forward. Who Chepo selects could well tell us a lot about what the team’s mentality will be going into the match.

Then, at right back, Gerardo Flores has almost come from nowhere to claim the spot, although he too is a more attacking option and Chepo could go for the more defensive Severo Meza.

Other nations may see the Confederations Cup as a curtain-raiser for the main event next year, but Mexico no longer has that luxury.

We’re about to see if De la Torre’s El Tri sinks or swims when confronted by some real quality opposition in a competitive environment with the pressure very much on.

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