On a turnover of possession, Andres Guadado takes possession of the ball and immediately searches for and finds Carlos Vela.
Vela uses his La Liga and Arsenal pedigree, combined with his familiarity with playing as a central playmaker, to skillfully hold and advance the ball to Miguel Layun on the right wing.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, centrally, and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano from the opposite wing attack the box as Layun plays the final ball in or drops his shoulder to take the chance himself.
The Mexican fast break may become more popular than the Mexican wave if El Tri beats Brazil in the Round of 16. It is poetry in motion, even if Layun’s service and decision making haven’t exactly been up to standard and Hernandez looks every single one of his 30 years. The front foursome may not have enough talent to even make Brazil’s bench, but Vela, Layun, Hernandez and Lozano are like a jazz band that understands how to stay on beat and play off one another.
Unfortunately, impressive solos are not the Mexican band’s specialty. But fortunately, all the players seem to understand and embrace this fact.
So that was said to say this. By now, everyone is aware that Mexico is cursed.
Dropping out at this stage in every World Cup since 1994 is, perhaps, only better emphasized by pointing out that the curse is older than Lozano. So, another Round of 16 departure at the hands of Brazil is not only expected, it seems inevitable.
And yet, if Russia can knock out Spain and Germany can fail to advance out of the group stages, why can’t Mexico beat Brazil? This isn’t any ordinary World Cup, and this is not a Mexico side like ever before.
If anything, the 2018 World Cup in Russia has underscored the importance of a competent manager — with Spain serving as the cautionary tale of a world-class ship sinking because the captain was tossed overboard just as the ship set sail — and team selection — with Leroy Sane’s exclusion suffocating Germany’s entrance and exit in Russia.
And this is where Mexico is a different side than previous editions.
Manager Juan Carlos Osorio is competent on the touchline and in his tactics and could be the wizard with the right spell to finally crack the Round of 16 curse. The 56-year-old Colombian does not seem to handicap players for moving to Major League Soccer, or insist on finding players that play for certain domestic clubs historically connected with the Mexican national team.
Notably, Osorio hasn’t followed the traditional Mexican formula of picking players from Chivas and America to flood the national team. In fact, Osorio’s two America selections are 20-year-old Edson Alvarez and 34-year-old Oribe Peralta.
Peralta is playing a bit part as an occasionally used substitute, while Alvarez’s starting spot against Brazil is in doubt. Osorio also didn’t select a single player from Chivas. Mexico’s national team is the most international El Tri in World Cup history.
In 1994, Mexico only featured two players out of 23 that did not play club football in Mexico. In 1998, only legendary goal keeper Jorge Campos played abroad — in Chicago with the Fire. In 2002 and 2006, El Tri only bought flights for four players that did not play domestic football in Liga MX. In 2010, Mexico began to shift with 14 of its 23 playing at home, while that number actually increased to 15 Liga MX players in 2014.
In 2018, only nine of Mexico’s 23 players play domestically. To hammer the point home, only two of Mexico’s starting 11 versus Germany in this year’s World Cup opener played club football in Mexico last season: Jesus Gallardo at Pumas and Hugo Ayala at Tigres.
Instead, Osorio has picked players on their skill and talent, rather than politics, and put them in positions where they are comfortable and can succeed individually and as a team.
For starters, Vela may wear no. 11, but he’s Mexico’s No. 10 on the pitch. Osorio did not overlook Vela simply because he moved to Major League Soccer from La Liga. Instead, the Colombian manager decided to build his attack around the 29-year-old LAFC playmaker by placing Vela in the role where he can use his talents to be most influential. Anyone watching Mexico in the group stage could see that he pulled the strings that launched Mexico’s lethal counterattacks.
Hernandez and Layun may not be having their best tournaments in terms of finishing and creating goals, but Osorio has put both 30-year-olds in familiar positions where they are comfortable and can succeed. This isn’t a square-pegs-in-round-holes situation.
Clearly, Mexico isn’t the most talented squad, nor is it especially young. The team’s primary playmaker played five years at Real Sociedad, not Real Madrid, while El Tri’s primary striker plays for West Ham United, not Manchester United. But El Tri is a side that is greater than the sum of its parts because Osorio has picked the best players for the job and emphasized activity and energy even more than finishing ability.
Mixing in Lozano, 22, and Gallardo, 23, provides El Tri the necessary youthful balance in midfield, but that’s not to say that the older players aren’t doing their part. Hernandez, for example, has been a tireless worker in pressing and running out on the break, even if he’s only managed one shot on target in three group stage matches. Incidentally, that one shot resulted in a goal.
Meanwhile, the most important player for Mexico in Russia has been Guillermo Ochoa. Approaching his 33rd birthday, the former America keeper now plays for Standard Liege, which may be a big club in Belgium but it is not exactly the most recognizable of brands in club football.
Against Brazil, the most recognizable brand in the sport, Mexico’s players understand what they’re up against more than most. Brazil is more talented and has history on its side. Brazil is supposed to win.
But the same was said of Germany.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Bushnell: Power ranking the Round of 16
• MVPs and LVPs of the group stage
• Dates, kickoff times for the Round of 16
• What could replace yellow cards as FIFA’s last-ditch tiebreaker?