Mexico was seemingly a lock to reach Brazil when the final round of qualifying began in CONCACAF. Instead of living up to those expectations, Mexico heads into the final set of qualifiers, beginning against Panama, with its World Cup fate still hanging in the balance.
As it stands now, El Tri are on the outside looking in. They are tied in points with Panama, but sit in fifth place due to the tiebreaker. It illustrates exactly how important the clash between the two sides is in terms of at least earning a playoff berth.
In the past, a trip to Estadio Azteca would have been a daunting task for the Canaleros. That shouldn't be the case this time around, though. Mexico has been far less dominant at home during the Hex, including a loss to Honduras last month.
El Tri must return to form in order to avoid the unthinkable result of missing the World Cup altogether. Let's take a glance at all the key viewing information for the crucial clash, followed by the top storyline and a match prediction.
What's your prediction for the critical match?
Where: Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico
When: Friday, Oct. 11 at 9:30 p.m. ET (2:30 a.m. BST)
Live Stream: WatchESPN.com
Match Odds (via Bovada)
Top Storyline: Can Mexico survive an unexpected qualifying battle?
Conventional wisdom said Mexico and United States would battle for the top spot in the Hex, qualifying for the World Cup with relative ease in the process. The other four teams in the group, including Panama, would then fight for the remaining spots.
The United States lived up to its end of the bargain. Mexico didn't. Costa Rica has emerged as the other top side in the final round of qualifying and has earned a trip to Brazil. It leaves one automatic bid and the playoff with New Zealand as the two remaining entry points from CONCACAF.
El Tri are three points behind Honduras for third place, so their main focus should be getting into the playoff match, and if the Catrachos collapse so they can sneak into third, all the better. But Mexico needs to find a way to step up over these final two matches to avoid a shocking collapse of its own.
The effort starts and ends with Javier Hernandez. "Chicharito" needs to be a dominant force atop the formation for Mexico, and then everything else should fall into place. If he struggles, which has been the case frequently during the Hex, El Tri faces an uphill battle to produce chances.
On defense, the onus falls on the veteran duo of Carlos Salcido and Rafael Marquez to slow down a potent Panama attack. One thing Mexico has been missing is a complete team effort for 90 minutes, a trend that needs to end.
Ultimately, it's a match Mexico should win, but it can't afford any more drops in form.
Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres must move forward aggressively in the early portion of the match to put some pressure on Mexico. El Tri are completely unsettled and under a lot of pressure, so making sure they don't find a comfort zone is key.
That said, Mexico simply has too much talent to let a World Cup opportunity slip away. With its back now officially against the wall, expect the CONCACAF powerhouse to step up and earn three enormous points at home.
Mexico 1, Panama 0