Martino has Mexico firing ahead of Gold Cup as players highlight positive changes
DALLAS, Texas -- Guillermo Ochoa is fast becoming Mexico's go-to player for explosive quotes. Following Sunday's 3-2 victory over Ecuador, the goalkeeper once again had his gloves off and was taking aim. The good news for Mexico fans this time around -- unlike when he slammed the team's lack of direction last November -- is that he is now happy with the path Gerardo Martino is leading the team down.
"With the interim coach [Ricardo Ferretti] we didn't work a single day," Ochoa told reporters after Sunday's game. "We'd play a scrimmage, some football-tennis, very little and at this level, it is very difficult to win without an idea, without a philosophy.
Things have changed under Martino. It can be seen around the camp, in the Argentine's news conferences and on the field, with the experienced Ochoa satisfied with the way the former Barcelona manager has come in and established a sense of purpose -- while also winning four out of four games.
"You can see it now, looking at the coach with objectives, clear goals, with clear footballing ideas," said Ochoa.
Less than a week out from Mexico's Gold Cup opener in Los Angeles against Cuba, it's a sentiment the other players share.
"We know we are a strong national team and we have shown that," said Wolves striker Raul Jimenez. "Since 'Tata' Martino arrived we've been victorious in all four of the four games, [have scored] 13 goals, conceded six. I think we've done well, although we still need to manage games a little better."
With the United States struggling, Mexico enters the Gold Cup as favourite -- a tag Martino isn't shying away from.
"I don't need to see the team or the form of the team, Mexico is naturally a candidate for the Gold Cup, that hasn't changed," he said. "The absences don't modify my thinking and we have to keep taking on the role of being the candidate, or one of the candidates, and play like one of the contenders [for the title.]"
The victory over Ecuador, however, was the most difficult game of Martino's six-month spell in charge.
Once again, there was an injury problem, with defender Hector Moreno taken off in the 35th minute and likely to miss the tournament, while Ochoa hit out at the state of the pitch in ATT Stadium.
Martino stuck to his promise of handing minutes to players who won't be getting much playing time in the Gold Cup, now that the Juan Carlos Osorio era of chopping and changing from game to game is over. But in terms of the experimentation, Martino wasn't satisfied.
"I can say that the way we played was our worst game of the four we've played, because we were imprecise playing out, even a little slow in the circulation," he said.
Guardado took over the holding midfield role in the 4-3-3 from Edson Alvarez, giving the Mexican midfield a very different feel. The combination handed El Tri three efficient midfielders in possession, but not much in the way of defensive cover and no true option of a defensive midfielder capable of slotting in at centre-back when the team plays out from the back in a 3-4-3.
It was a necessary experiment, to hand the likes of Jorge Sanchez, Alexis Vega, Cesar Montes and Orbelin Pineda playing time. Though the conclusion was that none did enough to suggest they'll be playing a prominent role at the Gold Cup.
In fact, Martino's mind is now almost made up with regards to the starting XI. "In general terms, I have the team that will start against Cuba, there could be situations like that of Hector Moreno, but in general I have it," he said.
It doesn't take a genius to work out what it will be. With Ochoa a certainty in goal, the backline will likely be Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez, Nestor Araujo, Carlos Salcedo [if Moreno is out] and Jesus Gallardo; a midfield of Edson Alvarez, Andres Guardado and one of Jonathan dos Santos or Carlos Rodriguez; with Jimenez, Roberto Alvarado and Rodolfo Pizarro the three forwards.
One of the key decisions will be surrounding Dos Santos and Rodriguez. The LA Galaxy midfielder scored the opener in Sunday's game and was labelled "the best player on the field" by Martino afterwards, while the Argentine stated after the Venezuela victory that 22-year-old Rodriguez "played like a 30-year-old." At a push, Dos Santos' experience should just win out.
Regardless of whether it is Rodriguez or Dos Santos, this is a Mexico team that, on paper, is significantly weaker than the one that finished in the Round of 16 stage of the World Cup last year. But with players like Ochoa rejuvenated and buying into Martino's idea, Mexico's has closed out its preparation with confidence and, in case anyone needs reminding, El Tri is the team to beat at the Gold Cup.