Mexico’s Shaky Start in the U-17 World Cup

FIFA’s U-17 World Cup kicked on October 17 in the United Arab Emirates and CONCACAF was represented by Mexico, Canada, Honduras, and Panama. Of those four teams, the region’s best chances for a deep run in the competition had to be with the reigning world champions, Mexico. Led again by Raúl “Potro” Gutiérrez, the young Aztecas would bring an attacking mentality to the global tournament and attempt to reignite the fascination with Mexican soccer born from the 2011 U-17 World Cup title, a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American games, a gold medal in the London 2012 Olympic Games, and first place at each of the 2013 U-17 and U-20 CONCACAF tournaments.

Mexico’s 21 man squad for the U-17 World Cup consists of five players from Pachuca, four from Chivas de Guadalajara, three from Club América, two from each of UNAM Pumas, Morelia, and Santos Laguna, and one player from Atlas, Monterrey, and Cruz Azul.

Every player in this Mexico U-17 team was born in 1996 except for Morelia’s wide midfielder / full back Erick Aguirre who is a ’97.

Under Raúl Gutiérrez, Mexico’s U-17 team has spent the past few months playing several preparation matches. Since August, the team has played as many as 13 exhibition matches against local and foreign clubs, as well as other national team sides.

Several players, including starters Raúl Gudiño (Chivas), Francisco Calderón (Pumas), and Alejandro Díaz (América), missed August’s Copa Independencia international club U-17 tournament in Mexico City for exhibition matches in South America with the national side.

Mexico may have been one of the most prepared squads heading into the tournament, but the opening group stage match against Nigeria argued the opposite.

World Cup Group Stage
Mexico opened its 2013 World Cup campaign against Africa’s runners-up, Nigeria. Nigeria has a physically imposing squad with a number of strong and quick players who are dangerous on the counter-attack.

This was Mexico’s starting line-up against Nigeria. Mexico started out on the front foot when Osvaldo Rodríguez got open on a overlapping run and fired in a cross from the left side that Iván Ochoa powered towards the Nigerian goal.

Nigeria made its game-plan apparent in the early goings as well, when the midfield repeatedly tried to find frontrunner Success Isaac with balls through Mexico’s defense. Central defenders Pedro Terán and Salomón Wbias started the game strong and kept the defense organized.

Mexico continued pressuring down the wings with the wide midfielders and fullbacks on both sides serving dangerous balls into the area for Díaz, Jaimes, and Rivas to attack. However, Nigeria would make the breakthrough with a pacey counterattack.

Success Isaac broke through the Mexican defense after Terán’s attempted sliding clearance bounced off the Nigeria forward. Chivas goalkeeper Raúl Gudiño did well to make himself big and block Isaac’s shot. As both recovering defenders headed to the goal-line, no one from Mexico picked up the late arriving run from Iheanacho. The Nigerian attacker picked the loose ball, cut inside, and faked a shot before ultimately firing past the defenders into the back of the net.

Mexico immediately pressed to find the equalizer and pushed men forward. This left El Tri exposed at the back as they were undone again by Isaac’s pace. Success Isaac raced down the left side of the field before finding Kelechi Iheanacho in the area. Iheanacho faked his shot multiple times and shimmied past three defenders too open up a shooting lane and double Nigeria’s lead.

Ulises Jaimes gave Mexico a lifeline almost seconds after Iheanacho’s second goal. After both Alejandro Díaz and a Nigerian defender missed a cross from the left side, the ball bounced to Jaimes near the top of the area. The Morelia forward faked a shot and pushed the ball to his right before coolly slotting his shot into the upper corner, out of the reach of Nigeria’s 17 foot tall goalkeeper. [Editor’s note: Nigeria’s goalkeeper, Alampasu might not actually be 17 feet tall]

The goal gave Mexico some of its swagger back as players began showing some flair. Shortly after Jaimes’s goal, José Almanza put the ball through the legs of a Nigerian defender before passing it off. However, Mexico went into the break without finding an equalizer.

Luis Hernández came into the game at halftime for left midfielder Christian Tovar but Raúl Gutiérrez’s young men starting the second half much more tentatively than they had the first. Even though the coach must have imparted upon them the importance of staying organized at the back, all of their work came undone shortly after the interval.

Nigeria sent a long throw-in into the penalty area and forward Ezeh gets a slight touch on the ball to direct it towards a lurking Iheanacho. Already on two goals, Iheanacho slammed a left footed volley past a stunned Gudiño for his hat-trick.

Coach Gutiérrezattempted to change Mexico’s fortunes by replacing ball-winning central midfielder Almanza with a poacher in Victor Zúñiga. Before the Cruz Azul striker could finish jogging onto the field, Nigeria finished the match as anything more than a formality.

Towering central defender Chidiebere Nwakali strode forward from the back with the ball at his foot. With no one occupying the defensive midfield role for Mexico as they attempted to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, Nwakali had the time and space to wind up his shot. Despite the best efforts of Gudiño in goal, Nwakali placed his shot low just inside the post from all of 25 yards out.

After going down 4-1, many of the Mexican players appeared to simply be going through the motions on the field. Once they seemed to be gaining some momentum by possessing the ball in attacking areas, Nigeria struck again on the counter attack.

Success Isaac ran half the length of the field down the left side and cut in past Terán before holding off a recovering Calderón. The forward had no trouble keeping Calderón at bay before curling a shot into the near post for Nigeria’s fifth.

Mexico began to pick up its game at 5-1. Hernandez played a nice ball into the path of fellow-sub Zúñiga, but la Máquina’s young forward shot well wide after driving into a decent area. El Tri continued to knock the ball around but Nigeria refused to give up the fight. Even though he hadn’t joined the attack since notching his third goal, Iheanacho rifled a left footed shot from outside the area into the far corner.

Marco Granados of Chivas came in for the final 18 minutes of regulation to replace Mexico’s goalscorer, Jaimes. Mexico had a number of chances during a flurry in the Nigerian penalty area before the ball popped out to Rodríguez, whose 20 yard effort was easily saved by Alampasu.

Raúl Gudiño was still on his toes and made a big double save near the final whistle. As odd as it may sound, Gudiño cannot really be held at fault for any of the 6 goals against him on the night.

Conclusions
The match against Nigeria was clearly alarming for the defending U-17 Champions. Nigeria was a physical and quick team that plays a direct counter attacking style. This was exactly the type of team to which Mexico was vulnerable. Even with the heavy loss, because four of the six third placed teams advance to the knockout round, Mexico still had a quality chance to move on from the group stage.

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