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MEXICO CITY – The United States will try to pull off the perfect crime on Wednesday, a smash-and-grab raid designed to steal the "0" from Mexico's remarkable 22-0-1 home record in this rivalry.
The U.S. did not arrive in Mexico until Tuesday, preferring to complete preparations in Miami before jetting south of the border. And while optimism among American fans is high following a spectacular run in the Confederations Cup, that enthusiasm must be tempered by the nightmarish conditions that await Bob Bradley's team in the Estadio Azteca.
Here we take a look at where things will be won and lost in a game where Mexico needs three points to boost its hopes of reaching the World Cup and where the USA would love to damage the chances of its regional rival.
Landon Donovan (left) and Cuauhtemoc Blanco will again be key figures.
(Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
• Landon Donovan. He is a key figure every time the U.S. plays Mexico, and this latest chapter of the rivalry will be no different. Donovan will be booed every time he touches the ball but will have an opportunity to silence the haters by making inroads on the left flank. With Rafael Marquez out injured, Efrain Juarez is likely to play right back for Mexico, and the in-form Donovan will relish the opportunity to test out the Pumas man.
• Cuauhtemoc Blanco. He has been brought back into the fold by Mexico coach Javier Aguirre in an attempt to instill some passion and spirit into the squad. Blanco is difficult to handle during the best of times, but at the Azteca, in scorching heat and with Mexico's World Cup future possibly on the line, he is certain to be fired up. Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit were outstanding at the heart of the USA defense during the Confederations Cup. They will need to play the game of their lives to blunt the skills of Blanco.
• The midfield battle. Controlling central midfield will be of paramount importance on Wednesday, and U.S. defensive midfielders Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark have a lung-bursting afternoon of toil ahead of them. The USA has dramatically improved its ability to stretch opposing teams and will need to do so here again. Much will depend on the combativeness of Bradley and Clark and their ability to win and hold on to the ball.
• Fast start by Mexico. All the good intentions about keeping a calm head and being patient could go out of the window if Mexico scores in the first 20 minutes. The Mexicans have only once failed to beat the U.S. at home, and momentum from an early goal could put this thing to bed. Bradley needs to urge his men to go hard at Mexico in the opening exchanges and put El Tri on the back foot while the Americans still have the energy. A passive beginning to the game will only lead to a long and painful afternoon in the smog and altitude of Mexico City.
• Home sweet home. The old adage of "it's the same for both teams" just doesn't apply here. Mexico's players know how to cope with the smog and soot filtering into their lungs and can pace themselves at altitude. The afternoon kickoff time is by design and will better suit the Mexicans' measured approach. The explosiveness of Carlos Vela, who is likely to come on in the second half and run at the tiring USA defense, could be decisive.
Despite the recent progress made by Bradley's first-choice side, it is impossible to look past a Mexico victory here. The Estadio Azteca provides one of the biggest home advantages in world soccer and anything other than a defeat would be a tremendous outcome for the U.S. Bradley's players will battle, but eventually fall.
Prediction: Mexico 2, USA 1.