Mexico were hoping to already be qualified for the World Cup at this point, but they now need to defeat New Zealand in a two-legged playoff starting on Wednesday. While there are still high expectations, it will not be easy.
New Zealand swept through the final round of qualifying in OFC, winning all six matches against New Caledonia, Tahiti and Solomon Islands. Unfortunately, the region does not get an automatic bid to the World Cup, so they must compete against the fourth team from CONCACAF.
Meanwhile, Mexico are fortunate to even be in this position after struggling throughout qualifying. They needed two late goals by the United States to earn the fourth-place spot in the region.
Still, these should be two competitive matches between quality teams both looking for a trip to the biggest tournament in the world. Watch for this group of players to truly stand out over the course of this battle.
Oribe Peralta, Mexico
With Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez and others not called up to the roster, Mexico need someone on the attack to step up. If things go well, that person will be Oribe Peralta.
The talented forward is arguably the best player on the roster at creating opportunities for both himself and others. He showed as much in the international friendly against Finland, when he scored a goal and added two assists in the 4-2 win.
He has a natural quickness with great ball control that allows him to work his way toward an opening. However, the pressure has never been this high for him to excel.
If Peralta is unable to produce scoring chances, it could be a long day for the Mexican offense.
Rafa Marquez, Mexico
The roster that Miguel Herrera has put together features a fair amount of talent, but not a lot of experience. As a result, the squad needs its veterans to step up and become leaders in this big set of games.
Rafa Marquez needs to be one of those players after competing in each of the last three World Cups.
While the 34-year-old defender might have lost a step over the past few years, he still knows exactly how to play the position. Considering mental mistakes have cost El Tri throughout qualifying, Marquez should be able to solve these problems.
Still, his most important role might be to keep the rest of the squad loose and ready to perform in these key matches.
Chris Wood, New Zealand
At only 21 years old, Chris Wood is a star on the rise in English football leagues.
After starting at West Bromwich Albion, he has moved around the Championship until finding his current home with Leicester City, where he has performed extremely well in recent years.
He has been especially impressive in the Capital One Cup, where his four goals with an assist in three matches has helped his club make a surprise run to the quarterfinals.
This skill has carried over for New Zealand, and the Kiwis will need a lot of offense from him in order to match Mexico.
Ivan Vicelich, New Zealand
With Winston Reid unavailable, the All Whites will look toward veteran defender Ivan Vicelich to lead the squad both mentally and physically.
It is amazing that the 37-year-old player's body is able to hold up at this stage of his career. However, the Auckland star is the most capped man in New Zealand history and will continue to perform as long as his country needs him.
Vicelich helped lead the squad to an appearance at the 2010 World Cup, and he knows that this group is capable of reaching the finals yet again.
If he can help keep Mexico's stars in front of him and outside the box, it will go a long way toward securing a win in this playoff.
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