By Andrew Downie
(Reuters) – With all their players fit and available Mexico would be firm favourites to win their 11th Gold Cup title but a long list of absentees means the talk going into the tournament is as much about who is missing as who is going.
Former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo Martino took the helm in January and results have been encouraging, with his team beating Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela and Ecuador in his first four games in charge, scoring 13 goals in the process.
As one of the strongest sides in the region, and especially in an expanded 16-team tournament, Mexico always expects to at least make the final.
Being drawn in a relatively easy group alongside Canada, Cuba and Martinique, the last of whom are not even a member of FIFA, will give Martino’s inexperienced side a chance to play their way into the tournament.
Yet much of the focus leading up to this Gold Cup has been on the players who will miss the tournament rather than those who could star.
Defender Miguel Layun and speedy winger Hirving Lozano are both injured while defensive stalwart Hector Moreno is also likely to be absent after being taken off injured in their 3-2 win over Ecuador.
Other players have voluntarily withdrawn from the squad.
Carlos Vela opted to snub the national side again, Javier Hernandez is taking time off for the birth of his baby and midfielder Hector Herrera, who has played in summer tournaments every year since the 2012 Olympics, is opting to take a break.
That leaves Mexico short of experience, especially up front, and a heavy burden will fall on Raul Jimenez, who scored 17 goals for Wolverhampton Wanderers this season in their impressive run to the FA Cup semi-final and a seventh-place English Premier League finish.
Roberto Alvarado of Cruz Azul and 20-year-old Rodolfo Pizarro of Monterrey may be given creative roles behind the forwards, and much will be expected of Jonathan dos Santos, the LA Galaxy midfielder who has scored in two of Mexico’s last three games.
Behind them, the experience of keeper Guillermo Ochoa and Andres Guardado, who have more than 250 caps between them, will be vital as Martino manages the generational change.
Anything less than a march to the final will be considered a failure for a team of Mexico’s stature but if they can keep up the high-tempo performances shown in Martino’s first four games then Mexico may not miss their more established players.
“Mexico naturally always has to be a candidate to win the Gold Cup,” Martino said after their final warm up game against Ecuador.
“The absences haven’t modified my thinking and we need to continue in our role as candidates or one of the candidates. And so we need to play like one of the candidates.”
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Toby Davis)