When: Friday, March 22. 5PM ET.
Where: Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano. San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
TV: Telemundo. Coverage starts at 4PM.
World Cup Qualifying starts up once again in the CONCACAF region after a 44-day hiatus, and this Friday afternoon Mexico will face its first must-win match of the year as it visits Honduras in the always tough, hot, hostile and downright intimidating environment of San Pedro Sula.
Honduras is on the rise after a solid 2-1 win at home over the U.S., while Mexico took a step back with a disappointing 0-0 draw hosting Jamaica in the opener of the six-team, 10-match tournament that gives out three automatic bids to Brazil 2014, while the fourth-place team will have to play a home-and-home playoff to enter the tournament.
Theoretically, the second match of ten shouldn’t carry that much weight. After all, this is a marathon, not a sprint, right? Well, not quite.
It is all about avoiding a snowball of negativity for Jose Manuel De La Torre’s squad, since a loss against Honduras would probably make the Mexican press go into full-fledged panic. Mexico would have just one point and their next match is against none other than an archrival like the United States.
In other words, a loss would turn the chilling reality of not being a part of the World Cup for the first time since 1990 from a laughable idea into a very disturbing, worrisome possibility.
This clash between two CONCACAF powerhouses will have the feel of a championship game for both national teams, so let’s review the three keys to the match that will captivate soccer fans everywhere on Friday afternoon.
Home-field advantage is relative in every sport. However, when it comes to World Cup qualifying, getting three points at home is absolutely crucial. In fact, in Honduras’ case, playing in front of their fans is a proven recipe for success against Mexico.
The Catrachos haven’t fallen in San Pedro Sula against Mexico since 1965, and the last three matches between them in WCQ have resulted in three wins for Honduras: 3-1 in 2001 and twice before the 2010 World Cup, 1-0 in 2008 and 3-1 in 2009.
Ending a 48-year-old drought won’t be easy for Mexico, since Honduras feeds off of the energy of the crowd and the unrelenting afternoon heat.
According to weather.com, the temperature during the day will hit a high of 102 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees celcius), something that will truly make playing in hostile territory a living hell for Mexico.
However, if there is a silver lining providing hope for Mexico, it is that they have a perfect 3-0-0 record so far in World Cup Qualifying with wins at El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guyana during the Group Stage.
Mexico has not one, but two world-class goalkeepers on its roster for the match against Honduras: Jose de Jesus Corona and Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa.
Corona is the undisputed starter, and he had a really good performance against Jamaica by preventing what would have been a catastrophic loss instead of a disappointing tie for his squad with a couple of key saves.
However, one has to wonder if Ochoa (who wasn’t available against the Reggae Boyz because of the impending birth of his daughter Luciana) should be the starter instead.
Corona is struggling with Cruz Azul, sporting the sixth worst “Goals Against” mark in the Mexican League with 16 in just 11 matches in the Mexican Clausura. In fact, Corona has kept a clean sheet just once in the entire tournament so far.
Ochoa, on the other hand, shined in France during AC Ajaccio’s 0-0 tie against powerhouse Olympique Marseille last Friday night and has not allowed a single goal in 11 of Ajaccio’s 29 matches.
De La Torre is not a coach that waffles too much with his lineups, and Corona certainly deserves to play all 90 minutes on Friday, but this time around Honduras will be much more aggressive than Jamaica was at the Azteca, and an uninspired night could put Corona’s starting spot in jeopardy.
Chicharito Hernández is Mexico's best option on offense
If you take a look at these two teams on paper, Mexico has the star power and talent Honduras apparently lacks. El Tri has Javier Hernandez, the Manchester United star worth $25.1 million according to Transfermarket.com. On the other hand, Honduras’ entire squad is worth $14.7 million.
However, transfer values go out the window in international play, and Honduras’ manager Luis Suarez has already stated that he won’t single out Hernandez in his defensive scheme, opting for a zone defense instead.
Chicharito was thoroughly uninspiring against Jamaica, just like the rest of Mexico’s offense, but great players step up in big games.
The jury is out on Chicharito’s true potential, but he will certainly be a difference maker, for better or worse, against a solid Honduras defense in a match that is worth much more than just three points for both teams in the short term and the long term.
Martin Bater currently works at Telemundo