WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Pride dented and World Cup hopes in the balance, Mexico have coped with the ignominy of an intercontinental playoff and are all but assured of a spot at next year’s global soccer showpiece before they face New Zealand in the second leg on Wednesday.
‘El Tri’, who only qualified for the playoff when the United States scored two late goals to beat Panama, ran rampant against a defensive All Whites’ side at the Azteca last week to record a 5-1 victory in the first leg.
While New Zealand must score at least four goals to give themselves any hope of advancing to their second successive finals, the visitors are not prepared to accept they have booked their place in Brazil just yet.
“We’re here to win the match, to convince that we’ve done things right,” coach Miguel Herrera told reporters in Wellington. “We can’t make the mistake of overconfidence or triumphalism, at this moment our principal enemy could be Mexico (itself).
“We’ll go out with the same attitude, as determined or more so than in the first leg.”
Mexico exploited New Zealand’s defensive tactics in the first leg when the All Whites had nine players behind the ball at times, which allowed the hosts the space to dictate play.
They also exploited a makeshift All Whites defense with three goals coming from set-pieces.
New Zealand felt the result flattered Mexico.
“I don’t think the Mexican team were worthy of five goals,” All Whites midfielder Chris James told reporters.
“I think we handed it to them, they’re a good team and everyone can see that but I think ... we gave them the chance to score five goals and they took them.”
The All Whites have adopted a seige mentality in the buildup to the clash, trying to convince themselves and the New Zealand public they can overturn the deficit.
Much of the feeling at home, however, is that qualification is beyond New Zealand.
Instead, the focus has shifted to the future of coach Ricki Herbert, who delivered a bizarre outburst after the game in Mexico, and whether he will give younger players an opportunity to prove themselves.
The 52-year-old’s contract is to expire at the end of the current campaign, and short of a miraculous turnaround at Wellington Regional Stadium, Herbert is expected to be out of work by the end of the week.
New Zealand Football Chairman Frank van Hattum told local media they expected to call for applications for the job and Herbert was welcome to express his interest.
Herbert will be forced to shake up his defense on Wednesday with Ivan Vicelich and Leo Bertos both suspended after picking up yellow cards in Mexico City.
The biggest question will be whether he embraces calls to introduce younger players to help build a team for the future, with pundits suggesting defenders Bill Tuiloma and Storm Roux should be given an opportunity.
A more attacking mindset has also been forced upon him with calls for James to start alongside Michael McGlinchey in the midfield while VfB Stuttgart’s Marco Rojas and Shane Smeltz should also come in after striker Chris Wood was suspended.
“We need to score four goals, so we have to be attacking,” James said. “We felt that we let the country down a bit with the performance last week.
“We are going to take it to them, the same way they did to us in Mexico.”
Additional reporting by Rex Gowar in Buenos Aires; Editing by Peter Rutherford