THE Confederations Cup continues on Saturday and we asked international football analyst Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) for his thoughts on the Group A concluder between Mexico and hosts Russia.
Mexico v Russia | Saturday 16:00 | ITV
Group A leaders Mexico know a point against Russia in Kazan on Saturday will suffice in their quest to reach the Confederations Cup semi-finals, whilst the Russians must pick up maximum points, or else their prospects will hinge on already-eliminated New Zealand defeating Portugal.
No host nation has failed to progress from the group-stage since South Korea in 2001 but Stanislav Cherchesov’s side face a tough task in ousting Mexico having failed to impress in their opening two encounters.
The Sbornaya fielded their strongest available XI however, the tools available to Cherchesov remain more workmanlike than inspiring with key trio Artem Dzyuba, Alan Dzagoev and Roman Zobnin all missing through injury.
Physical and mental fatigue has already taken its toll on the team and the Russian head coach admitted his team selection for Saturday is no straightforward matte with weary minds and bruised bodies scattered throughout the squad.
Russia must improve in the final third
Russia were comfortable without a clinical edge against outsiders New Zealand but the same side failed to register a shot on-target in their 1-0 reverse to European champions Portugal last time out. For much of that match, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hosts’ best player.
Despite a lacklustre first period, though, Russia were much improved in the second-half as they peppered the opposition’s box with a series of dangerous crosses. Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Glushakov are capable midfielders and forward Fedor Smolov certainly boasts goalscoring ability.
But four triumphs in 17 outings suggests the Sbornaya could come up short. Smolov, Glushakov and Golovin will all hope to exploit a Mexico defence that’s been breached three times thus far but whether Russia will be given the autonomy remains key.
Mexico’s failed experiment
Mexico head coach Juan Carlos Osorio again came in for criticism for his wholesale rotation policy. Eight changes were made for El Tri’s contest with New Zealand in midweek with the CONCACAF champions switching from a 4-3-3 formation to 3-2-2-3 In Sochi.
All of Mexico’s top players – Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, Miguel Layun, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, Jonathan Dos Santos, Carlos Vela, and Javier Hernandez were left on the bench and El Tri produced a sloppy, error-strewn first 45 minutes.
The lack of chemistry was obvious from the first whistle as Osorio’s side lacked fluidity in possession whilst Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez – neither the quickest – up front rarely threatened. By the interval, New Zealand had attempted more shots, more shots on goal and enjoyed the better chances.
The All Whites also had a fully deserved 1-0 lead at the break with Mexico’s backline creaking and Diego Reyes struggling in the holding midfield role. Osorio likely wanted to counter New Zealand's aerial threat but he neutralized Mexico's strengths in the process and El Tri looked like a side that hadn't played together.
El Tri tinkering
Mexico reverted to a back-four for the second-half and eventually reeled New Zealand in. Javier Aquino was a bright light down the left-hand side but it was the half-time introduction of Hector Herrera that sparked the revival.
The deep-lying playmaker from Porto transformed the pace of Mexico's passing, exploiting the angles to put his team on the front foot against a disciplined and resilient Kiwis side. Despite the visible improvement, Mexico made much heavier work of the outsiders and survived a late scare when Ryan Thomas hit the crossbar five minutes from time.
Although slack finishing made El Tri’s triumph far tenser than it should have been, greater concern surrounds the state of Osorio’s defence. Both Portugal’s opening goal and New Zealand’s strike can be put down to defensive errors, whilst both Carlos Salcedo and Hector Moreno picked up injuries.
The betting angle
Nevertheless, Mexico should revert to their best XI here and when in full flow, are a fluent and interesting team, packed full of midfield options and attacking intent. A W9-D3-L1 return from their past 13 fixtures has swelled confidence in the ranks whilst the 1999 winners have suffered only two defeats in 40 now.
I’ve backed Mexico from the outset to challenge for top honours in this competition and I’m not going to turn my back on them following a one-off lapse against New Zealand. I’m expecting a much-improved performance and would want to keep the table-toppers onside here.
Russia’s desperation for a result should play into the CONCACAF nation’s hands and as already suggested, El Tri possess the offensive edge to make the hosts pay.
Odds of 6/4 (Bet365) to win the fixture aren’t as attractive as I’d hoped so I’m going to play a safer bat and back Mexico at 10/13 (10BET) in the Draw No Bet market. We’ll see our stake returned should the game end all-square.
Mexico v Russia – Mexico draw no bet (10/13 10BET)