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 By Tom Marshall

Mexico face stern tests as World Cup preparation enters final stage

ESPN's Herculez Gomez looks at the big picture and what lies ahead for Juan Carlos Osorio after he turned down a contract extension with Mexico.

Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio was again interrogated about his future on the eve of El Tri's meet-up ahead of friendlies against Iceland (Mar. 23) in Santa Clara, Calif. and Croatia (Mar. 27) in Dallas, Tex.

"I've never said that I don't want to continue with Mexico," said Osorio in an interview with Grupo Imagen on Sunday night. "On the contrary, my first response has always been that hopefully we have a good World Cup and the coaching staff deserves to continue, because if it isn't a good World Cup we all know what will happen."

Osorio, who rejected a contract renewal with El Tri at the beginning of March, has stressed the same message over and over and the whole topic is starting to become nauseously repetitive. Instead, there's a much more important issue than Osorio's future right now and that is the small matter of this summer's World Cup in Russia.

Juan Carlos Osorio and Mexico face a daunting group of Germany, Sweden and South Korea.
Osorio's spent a lot of time in Europe trying to get ready for this World Cup.

In preparation for it, Osorio recently spent almost a month in Europe, meeting up with the Mexican players but also finding time to pick the brains of managers with World Cup experience like Sir Alex Ferguson, Guus Hiddink and Louis van Gaal, as well as Spain coach Julen Lopetegui, Spanish national team sporting director Fernando Hierro and one of the Colombian's trusted acquaintances, Juan Manuel Lillo.

After all the talk and soaking up of information comes what feels like the start of the final countdown to Russia 2018. The upcoming games against Iceland and Croatia in the United States are key for Mexico even if the news that Javier Aquino, Jurgen Damm and Jonathan dos Santos would all miss out through injury dealt a blow before the squad had even arrived in California.

Iceland boast certain similarities to Mexico's Group F World Cup opponents Sweden, while Croatia have some genuine quality that will test El Tri, although not to the degree as Germany in the World Cup opener. Osorio will want to get feedback on his plans for those two World Cup games, while not giving too much away; he'll also be looking for signals about how to cut the current 26-player squad into a 23-player one for Russia 2018.

Fringe players like Oswaldo Alanis, Edson Alvarez, Jesus Molina, Rodolfo Pizarro, Jorge Hernandez, Jonathan Gonzalez and Omar Govea will all have a last-ditch opportunity to make an impact, be it in training or the actual games.

The results of these matches against Iceland and Croatia may not be the be-all-and-end-all but like November's confidence-boosting performances in Europe against Belgium and Poland, every injection of belief Mexico can receive between now and the World Cup is important.

Mexico fans will hope Carlos Vela can translate his early season MLS form to the national team.

Iceland comes into the game without injured Everton playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson but will nevertheless be a stern test for El Tri given their direct game, compact 4-4-2 formation and willingness to concede possession: Iceland averaged 42 percent possession in finishing top of Group I in UEFA World Cup qualifying. Their victory against England in Euro 2016 should no longer be considered a fluke and despite the nice story about Iceland being the smallest ever nation in terms of population to make a World Cup, this Iceland team is perfectly capable of making an impact at Russia.

One spot behind Mexico in the FIFA rankings, Heimir Hallgrimsson's 18th-place team has developed a set style and system and defeated Turkey and Ireland away on the way to topping a qualifying group that also included Ukraine, Croatia and Greece. It's the kind of tough, defensive, aerial side that could cause Mexico problems. And Osorio seems very aware of that. For example, he considers Sweden a much tougher World Cup opponent than South Korea, as he acknowledged during the same Grupo Imagen interview.

Osorio will likely field a side containing a greater number of stronger aerial players than usual on Friday in Levi's Stadium -- the scene of Mexico's 7-0 capitulation to Chile in 2016 -- with Carlos Salcedo likely to feature at right-back and Diego Reyes or Jesus Molina in the holding midfield role. Even forward Raul Jimenez may have a greater chance of starting than usual given his prowess in the air.

The experienced Croatia is a different proposition than Iceland and its front four of Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic and Luka Modric, with Ivan Rakitic tucked in just behind, will provide a challenge to Mexico's defense and ability to dominated possession as it usually does.

Mexico may have beaten Croatia convincingly at the last World Cup but Croatia defeated Spain at Euro 2016 and only lost to eventual winners Portugal in extra-time. The Balkan nation is 15th in the FIFA rankings and boasts seven players at Italy's top clubs, four at elite La Liga clubs and four in Germany, even if internal wrangling has held this group of players back from reaching its potential so far.

So while Osorio's future may well be discussed some more in this current meet-up, the real issue is how El Tri does on the field against two good sides and how that could relate to the World Cup.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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