World Soccer - - Road to russia -

Mex­ico qual­i­fied for their sev­enth suc­ces­sive World Cup with three games to spare af­ter beat­ing Panama 1-0 in the Es­ta­dio Azteca while the USA crashed to a 2-0 de­feat by Costa Rica in New Jersey.

The com­fort­able qual­i­fi­ca­tion for El Tri was in stark con­trast to four years ago, when ev­ery­thing went down to the wire and a play-off against New Zealand af­ter Mex­ico fin­ished fourth in the fi­nal CONCACAF “hexag­o­nal” qual­i­fy­ing group.

Early qual­i­fi­ca­tion this time gave Mex­ico’s Colom­bian coach Juan Car­los Oso­rio the chance to ex­per­i­ment with home-based play­ers in Oc­to­ber’s fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing games against Trinidad & Tobago and Hon­duras.

In con­trast, the United States, reel­ing from their loss to Costa Rica, needed a late equaliser from sub­sti­tute Bobby Wood to take a point from their visit to Hon­duras four days later. Those poor re­sults left Bruce Arena’s side in fourth place and need­ing to beat third-place Panama in their penul­ti­mate Hexag­o­nal game to avoid a play-off against Aus­tralia or Syria.

It has not been all plain sail­ing for Mex­ico un­der Oso­rio. They were thrashed 7-0 by Chile at the 2016 Copa Amer­ica Cen­te­nario and failed to sparkle at the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup in Rus­sia, where Oso­rio col­lected a six game-ban for ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour on the touch­line. At this sum­mer’s Gold Cup, a Mex­i­can B team crashed out to Ja­maica in the semi-fi­nals.

Oso­rio has been backed by the Mex­i­can fed­er­a­tion on his in­sis­tence that World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion was the team’s pri­or­ity. But he has faced crit­i­cism in the press – with Hugo Sanchez and for­mer na­tional coach Ri­cardo La Volpe snip­ing from the side­lines – and from fans in the stands.

Much of the hos­til­ity to­wards Oso­rio has cen­tred on his pas­sion for squad ro­ta­tion. He has used 63 play­ers since he took charge of the na­tional side in Oc­to­ber 2015 and only a small, core group of Euro­pean-based play­ers have played in a ma­jor­ity of games.

The 56-year-old claims he learned the im­por­tance of player ro­ta­tion when spy­ing on Ger­ard Houl­lier’s train­ing ses­sions at Liver­pool while a stu­dent at the city’s John Moores Univer­sity.

A for­mer fit­ness coach for Kevin Kee­gan’s Manch­ester City, Oso­rio has worked his way up the hard way. Atletico Na­cional’s 2015 Su­damer­i­cana Cup is his great­est suc­cess to date and he has strug­gled to win over the Mex­i­can foot­ball es­tab­lish­ment in what is the big­gest job of his ca­reer so far.

Yet de­spite the snipers, Oso­rio has the high­est win per­cent­age among Mex­i­can coaches of re­cent times and he now has the lux­ury of hav­ing time to spare while pre­par­ing for next sum­mer’s fi­nals.

He has plenty of op­tions in at­tack, where Hirv­ing Lozano, who scored the goal against Panama that clinched qual­i­fi­ca­tion and who is thriv­ing at PSV in Hol­land, com­petes with Javier Her­nan­dez, Car­los Vela, Je­sus Corona and Raul Jimenez. They are the main con­tenders to form the front three in an en­er­getic, high-press­ing 4-3-3 for­ma­tion.

The coach has more con­cerns about mid­field and de­fence, where a num­ber of his play­ers are not get­ting game time at their clubs in Europe. Hector Her­rera and Diego Reyes at Porto, and Hector Moreno at Roma, are strug­gling to hold down first-team places, while goal­keeper Guillermo Ochoa’s ca­reer has stalled at Stan­dard Liege in Bel­gium.

Ver­sa­tile 19-year-old de­fender Ed­son Al­varez looks promis­ing but

Con­fu­sion sur­rounds the sta­tus of vet­eran de­fender Rafael Mar­quez, 38, who has de­nied al­leged links to a drugs-traf­fick­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion

Through...Hirv­ing Lozano cel­e­brates scor­ing for Mex­ico against Panama

Promis­ing... Ed­son Al­varez

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