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Mexico in make-or-break qualifier

Updated: 2013-10-11 07:49
By Agence France-Presse in Mexico City ( China Daily)

Mexico faces a must-win World Cup qualifier against Panama on Friday or risks missing the tournament, costing millions in endorsements and breaking millions of hearts in the soccer-mad nation.

Coming off a high after winning the 2012 London Olympics gold medal, the Mexicans came into the qualifying campaign as favorites as usual to cruise to next year's World Cup finals in Brazil.

But despite a pool of Europe-based talent that includes Manchester United's Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, it is dangerously close to missing the tournament for the first time since 1990 after winning only one qualifier.

"We must win. It's the only thing we have in mind," Hernandez said.

Mexico sits fifth in the six-team CONCACAF regional group while Panama holds the fourth spot that would qualify it for a playoff against New Zealand.

El Tri have only two games left to either snatch the playoff spot away from Panama or, with some help, secure the last of three direct qualifying spots.

The United States and Costa Rica have secured the first two slots while Honduras holds third place with 11 points.

Panama, which has never qualified for a World Cup finals, is fourth with eight points, level with Mexico but ahead thanks to a better goal difference.

Mexico's federation tried to shake things up last month by firing manager Jose Manuel de la Torre and replacing him with Victor Manuel Vucetich, known as 'King Midas' for a golden touch that led Mexican clubs to several championships.

Vucetich inherited a squad that only managed four goals in eight games and was mired in tension off the field.

While he convinced goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who plays for French club Ajaccio, to come back after sitting out the past two games, Real Sociedad star forward Carlos Vela, who has also been at odds with the federation, refused to end his two-year boycott of the team.

Vucetich, however, voiced confidence his squad will prevail when it hosts Panama in the 105,000-capacity Azteca stadium in Mexico City - a usually imposing site where it endured an embarrassing defeat to Honduras last month.

"The group is gelling more and more every day and this gives us the serenity that we can come out victorious with this squad," said Vucetich, whose team will then face Costa Rica on Tuesday while Panama will square off against the US.

But after seeing their nation compete in 14 of the last 19 World Cups, Mexicans are nervous about the prospect of their team missing the cut.

(China Daily 10/11/2013 page22)