There was much more to celebrate from Mexico's 2-0 victory over El Salvador than just a ticket to the 2022 World Cup. In the dramatic final matchday of CONCACAF's Octagonal round of qualifiers on Wednesday, there was something noticeable about El Tri's style of play: It was fun.
With a place at Qatar on the line (albeit more of a formality given the sequence of events that would have seen Costa Rica pip Mexico to the final spot) manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino was unexpectedly bolder than usual. As opposed to his cautious approach that appeared to have emerged in response to losses in qualifiers to the United States and Canada last November, there was additional freedom against El Salvador in a setup that featured a total of five changes from his previous starting XI.
Of those changes, the most noteworthy of alterations was a spot on the bench for two of his star wingers: Napoli's Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and Sevilla's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. In their place and essentially in charge of leading the attack, Martino brought on Alexis Vega and Uriel Antuna, two domestic Liga MX names that have traditionally been rotation players for the national team.
The decision paid off handsomely, and throughout the game, it looked like Martino was embracing a return to his progressive and forward-thinking style of play that was utilized by the manager when he first took charge of Mexico in 2019. After lumbering through four previous qualifiers with two goals, El Tri suddenly found itself up 2-0 by halftime on Wednesday.
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Vega, on the left wing, linked up well with striker Raul Jimenez and provided a number of key passes. Antuna, on the right, eventually emerged as the Man of the Match thanks to scoring a goal in the 17th minute and winning a penalty that set up Jimenez to make it 2-0 by the 43rd.
Elsewhere, in the midfield, the unproven duo of Carlos Rodriguez and Erick Gutierrez stepped up as a mobile partnership that quickly helped shift the ball vertically. Although Mexico were unable to find another goal in the second half, it remained a satisfying performance from Martino and his men. Notably, they were able to accomplish this and qualify for the World Cup through an altered XI that put plenty of faith on a few backup players that fans have been yearning for.
"At some point that opportunity is going to come," Antuna (who hasn't started since January for Mexico) said to TUDN after the match. "I have to be ready for it when I get it."
Martino was pleased with some aspects of the game but left room for constructive criticism. "I really liked the circulation of the ball that we had," he said. "I think that we improved our chance creation but I insist that we still need to do better with the final ball and have more conviction in the final third."
Not too long ago in the Octagonal, El Tri were defined by a lack of goals through low-scoring draws and narrow wins. The 2-0 win over El Salvador was the first time that they've scored more than once in their four qualifiers at home this year, and the first time in their entire Octagonal run that they've scored twice in the first half of a qualifier.
Martino's insistence on avoiding risks in most of 2022 hasn't been pretty and has unquestionably forced some tricky situations in which Mexico are chasing late equalizers or game-winners. Ahead of the El Salvador encounter, that led to some questioning his status with the national team.
Earlier on Monday, ESPN Mexico's John Sutcliffe stated that Martino's future with El Tri could be put to a vote by Mexican club owners, listing Tigres UANL's Miguel "Piojo" Herrera as a possible back-up plan. Although ESPN Mexico's Rene Tovar reported on Tuesday that Mexican Football Federation president Yon de Luisa had dismissed any talk of Martino leaving and that he would remain with the team if it reached the World Cup in Qatar, it was obvious that pressure was beginning to build.
Martino took his chances, potentially with his job on the line, and claimed not only a ticket to the World Cup, but a second spot in the Octagonal table -- finishing one place ahead of their resurgent U.S. rivals and also level on 28 points with leaders Canada. Were it not for the odd tactical change or poor finishing, Mexico could have stolen a position at the top. But it matters not. As we've seen before, the qualifiers for the World Cup can look very different than the team that shows up at the actual tournament. Securing an invitation is just part of the journey and we'll see if Mexico's coach leans more towards his cautious or adventurous side going forward.
"This was something I expected from us and it's something [qualifying for the World Cup] that we needed to do," said Martino after the match. "Now, what's next is preparing for the objective. Tomorrow begins a totally different stage."