Mexico’s next stop on Road to Qatar 2022: Jamaica

Alexis Vega could get the start against Jamaica in place of the suspended "Chucky" Lozano. He started against Jamaica in their first qualifier at home in September. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Alexis Vega could get the start against Jamaica in place of the suspended "Chucky" Lozano. He started against Jamaica in their first qualifier at home in September. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
El Tri Jamaica preview
El Tri manager Gerardo Martino knows that anything less than a win at Jamaica on Thursday could lead to his firing. Here he is reacting to a play during Mexico’s 2-1 win over “The Reggae Boyz” in Estadio Azteca last September. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Coach “Tata” Martino leads El Tri into Jamaica for an important World Cup qualifier without “Chucky” Lozano, Raúl Jiménez and César Montes, and without a vote of confidence. I wonder if he has an “It’s us against the world” speech prepared.

Mexico sits in third place in the Concacaf qualifying table in desperate need of momentum before its colossal clash against Team USA in March. The current FIFA break calendar has El Tri facing off against “The Reggae Boyz” on Thursday, then at home against Costa Rica (Sunday) followed by a visit from Panama (Feb. 2).

The contest against Panama could be critical as the two rivals are tied on points though El Tri is ahead on goal differential. “Los Canaleros” play at Costa Rica then host Jamaica before taking on the Mexicans.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first order of business is coming back from Kingston with all 3 points and there’s nothing automatic about that anymore as El Tri is 3-1-2 in World Cup qualifiers on the island.

Who will step up for El Tri?

Mexico will take the field at Independence Park on a two-game losing streak in the Concacaf tournament. El Tri was in first place before getting spanked by Team USA in Cincinnati by that all-too familiar 2-0 scoreline then getting embarrassed by an up-and-coming Canada side in Edmonton four days later.

Those November failures have faded in the rear-view mirror (let’s hope) and “Tata” knows he’d better deliver or start looking for a new job. But to do that, the Argentine manager might have to stop relying so much on the Class of 2018.

Coach Martino’s first task will be to reshape his attack force since “Chucky” (red card suspension) and Raúl (calf injury) are unavailable. The third member of his preferred front line – Jesús Corona – arrives with a new mentality having finally forced a trade away from Porto. “Tecatito” made an impact in his first start with Sevilla on Jan. 22, providing an assist in the club’s 2-2 draw against Celta de Vigo.

Chivas winger Alexis Vega and Monterrey striker Rogelio Funes Mori are the likely starters up front, and each scored in their respective Liga MX matches over the weekend. Real Betis youngster Diego Lainez is also an option but Orbelín Pineda has not seen any game action since Nov. 22.

Lainez had not been summoned during the current qualifying cycle up till now as he was dealing with injury. Pineda has started four of Mexico’s eight qualifiers thus far (and came on as a sub in two others), but he has yet to debut with Celta de Vigo since transferring there earlier this month.

Skipper Guillermo Ochoa (América) will be between the pipes, but who will “Tata” place in front of him? Veteran Héctor Moreno (Monterrey) and Celta de Vigo back-liner Néstor Araujo are in the mix, but youngster Johan Vásquez has looked good since joining Genoa in August.

El Tri’s problem area has been at fullback and it remains a question mark. Luis Rodríguez (Tigres) and Jorge Sánchez (América) have been error-prone on the right side while newcomer Julián Araujo (LA Galaxy) is not in game shape since the MLS season doesn’t begin until Feb. 26. Araujo would be my pick (and not just because we share a birthday) as he impressed during his Mexico debut against Chile on Dec. 8.

Jesús Gallardo (Monterrey) is a solid left back though he rarely plays as well for his country as he does for his club. Gerardo Arteaga (Genk) could see some time now that he has been restored to the national team. The Santos Laguna product had seemingly been banished from El Tri after declining an invite to join Mexico’s Olympic team last summer, preferring to spend time with his family.

“Tata” has a wealth of talent to choose from in midfield, but he has too often selected strong defenders and El Tri has lacked offensive threats in the middle of the pitch. This must change.

It’s clear that Edson Álvarez (Ajax) will be at the base of the midfield trident as he provides security in front of the back four. But El Tri needs creativity and better passing in support of the three-man attacking line.

Carlos Rodríguez has been playing well since his trade to Cruz Azul and Monterrey’s Luis Romo (the man Rodríguez was traded for) is also a threat in transition. Lainez could also serve as a midfield quarterback, but Martino has too often gone the conservative route, relying on veteran Héctor Herrera (Atlético de Madrid) and the aging Andrés Guardado (Real Betis).

Erick Gutiérrez (PSV Eindhoven) can be a clever playmaker but he too often shrinks while wearing the Mexico jersey.

Another key will be Martino’s in-game adjustments. “Tata” has been deservedly criticized for not making timely substitutions and with so many options on the bench he must be aggressive, not allowing Jamaica to stay in the match.

Anything less than a “W” will increase the tension on the manager and he knows it. This week, Mexico’s federation president Yon de Luisa made it clear that Martino is on a very hot seat. When asked by reporters if the coach’s job was secure, De Luisa said: “There are no guarantees in life. We must win.” The FMF executive did offer a back-handed compliment (“I think he is the right man for the job and we support him”) but went on to say that these next three games are “life or death.”

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If Martino needs at least 7 points to retain his job (two wins and a draw), he has very little margin for error. A stumble against Jamaica could revive talk of El Tri’s fragile psyche and scuttle any more talk about Mexico being the Concacaf giant.