By DAN KARELL
Even though they wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated from World Cup qualification on Friday night, Mexico’s match against Panama at Estadio Azteca represents as close to a must-win as they’ve felt in years.
That’s the challenge on hand for new head coach Victor Manuel Vucetich, who must produce results in his first two matches in charge or else Mexico could fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since they were suspended from World Cup 1990 in Italy.
In a bid to add some new life to the listless El Tri sides from earlier this season, Vucetich has recalled former captain Rafa Marquez as well as goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, while leaving off unfit or out-of-form European-based players like Diego Reyes, Andres Guardado, and domestic-based centerback Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez.
Twice this summer at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Panama defeated Mexico’s B team, but Los Canaleros will be in for a different challenge in the smog and altitude of Mexico City. Playing the match in the evening should help, but Panama’s star strikers Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres, combining their speed and strength, should look at the uneasy and unfamiliar Mexico back line with big eyes.
Panama head coach Julio Dely Valdes knows that if they can steal a point on the road against Mexico and hope for a good result against the United States on Tuesday, they can finish in fourth place and qualify through the playoffs. And he’ll be buoyed by the 0-0 draw that Panama earned when the two nations met in June.
Earlier on Friday, Honduras will try to ensure an automatic place in Brazil when they host Costa Rica in the heat of San Pedro Sula.
It’s the third time that these two nations have faced each other during this calendar year, with the Ticos winning the first in San Jose, Costa Rica in June but the Catrachos enacted some revenge at the Gold Cup a month later to knock Costa Rica out of the tournament.
Both countries have called in experienced sides for the final two World Cup qualifying matches, and with a win on Friday, Honduras can all but secure a spot in Brazil with 14 points from nine games.
Catrachos head coach Luis Fernando Suarez can earn the nation just their third ever World Cup appearance. At a press conference this week, Suarez told reporters that he doesn’t believe Costa Rica would play easy to let Honduras win, and that he’s glad that the team has destiny in their own hands, without having to worry about the results of others.