MEXICO CITY – Mexico last missed the World Cup in 1990. It could happen again unless it beats New Zealand in a two-game playoff beginning Wednesday at Azteca Stadium.
Mexico received a gift courtesy of the United States just to reach this stage. The U.S. scored two late goals to defeat Panama, sending the Mexicans to the playoff. Otherwise, Panama would have advanced and Mexico would have been out.
Mexico played poorly during qualifying, struggling to score and finishing behind the U.S., Costa Rica and Honduras — the three earned the automatic berths from the CONCACAF region.
El Tri has gone to extraordinary measures in hopes of reaching Brazil, bringing in Miguel Herrera to handle the two-game playoff in the latest of a series of coaching changes. Herrera, the coach of the Mexican club America, has overlooked the country's Europe-based players, like Manchester United's Javier Hernandez, and is going with players from Mexico's domestic league.
Mexico must find a way to score, and it should have an overwhelming advantage at home.
The altitude in Mexico City is 7,350 feet and the thin air always hurts visiting teams. And the home crowd at the 100,000-capacity stadium is usually intimidating.
"We'll do it here," Herrera said. "I'm sure that Mexico will get the advantage so we can relax in Wellington and finish the job. This is the idea. To take care of business at home."
"That's why we have a local team," he added. "We have players who are used to playing at this altitude."
Mexico is expected to start Oribe Peralta up front, and team him with Aldo de Nigris or Rual Jimenez.
World Cup organizers would surely prefer to have Mexico — a relative neighbor — in the field than New Zealand, which would bring few fans.
Herrera was the fourth coach hired by Mexico in a span of six weeks.
"We are in the process of leaving behind the past and looking toward the great opportunity we have," Herrera said. "We are not overconfident. An excess of confidence would make us think our rival is a step below us."
New Zealand was the only team that didn't lose a match in the 2010 World Cup — drawing all three games — although it did not advance from the group stage. New Zealand has been training in Southern California and travels to Mexico at the last moment, hoping to beat the altitude adjustment.
New Zealand's key problem — besides the altitude — may be the absence of West Ham defender Winston Reid with an ankle injury.
The second leg is Nov. 20 in Wellington, and coach Ricki Herbert is likely to be cautious in Mexico and play for a draw. He knows Mexico will try to pile up the goals.
"That presents a strong challenge for us, but also a good one," he said. "If we can be tight and very resolute we can put ourselves in a position to showcase our talents at home in the second leg."