|Guillermo Ochoa during a training session, in Natal, on Thursday. (Reuters)
Natal: Javier Hernandez, Mexico’s third most prolific international goalscorer of all time, has been left out of the starting line-up for Friday’s World Cup opener against Cameroon at Dunas Arena.
Hernandez had a disappointing season for Manchester United and coach Miguel Herrera has, as expected, preferred the partnership of Oribe Peralta and Giovani dos Santos to start up front in the Group A match.
“The competition is very tough,” Herrera told a news conference at the stadium on Thursday. “The team that started against Portugal made me very happy on the offensive. There was good chemistry between Dos Santos and Oribe.”
Mexico lost 0-1 to Portugal in a World Cup warm-up in Foxborough, Massachusetts last week.
Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa played the second half as a substitute and did enough to earn the starting spot ahead of Jose Corona, who had started the match against the Portuguese.
“I have three goalkeepers, it was a very difficult decision,” added Herrera. “It was a decision of the whole technical team and we decided to go with Ochoa.”
Mexico captain Rafael Marquez believes the Aztecs can end a near three-decade absence from the quarter finals.
“This is a window for all of us, for many of the players it's a huge opportunity to raise their level and for others to see us play,” Marquez said on Thursday.
“You don’t get many chances to do that. That’s what I always tell the lads. Our group is strong and in our minds we believe we can make it all the way to the finals and make history”
Mexico have never faced Cameroon, and while Herrera said his technical team have done their homework on what he regards as a "strong side who move quickly up the pitch," Marquez has pointed to the danger posed by Chelsea striker Samuel Eto'.
The pair played together at Barcelona, and Marquez, now with Mexican side Leon, added: “It will be special because he’s a good friend of mine. We were teammates at Barcelona. Now we’re opponents and I’ll have to be on top of him because he's one of the pillars of their team.
“It’s crucial we start well, take the three points and build momentum for the big challenges that lie ahead.”
Mexico and Cameroon would be prime contenders for the title of most fortunate qualifiers for the World Cup but both will fancy their chances of progressing from Group A if they can win their opening encounter on Friday.
Hosts Brazil and Croatia round out the group so traditional early tournament caution could be thrown to the wind at the Dunas Arena with both teams knowing that a draw is unlikely to much help their cause.
Concacaf powerhouse Mexico just scraped through to a play-off only courtesy of a dramatic last gasp victory by the United States over Panama last year before overwhelming New Zealand to secure their place at a sixth successive World Cup.
They have shown distinct signs of revival under the aggressive guidance of Herrera — the team’s fourth coach since last September — and should offer plenty of entertainment to the many fans who have followed them down to Brazil.
Cameroon’s Lions likewise looked anything but indomitable in their qualifying campaign and they needed the reversal of a 0-2 defeat to Togo after their West African rivals fielded a suspended player to get to a play-off.
They thumped Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate to reach a seventh successive World Cup finals, however, and a 2-2 draw against Germany in a friendly last week offered some hope that Volker Finke’s team were starting to click.
Cameroon football is never that simple, however, and the squad boarded a flight to Brazil some 12 hours late on Monday after a threatened strike over bonus payments was averted by frantic negotiations.
The Cameroonian football federation had to take out a loan to pay the players because it would not receive the money from Fifa until three months after the World Cup is over.
No wonder the Cameroon footballers will try to overcome their off-field issues and concentrate on the job at hand.
The differences between skipper Samuel Eto’ and some of his teammates have been well publicised but the 33-year-old remains a formidable striker and will be hoping to emulate the even more aged Roger Milla’s heroics at the 1990 finals in Italy.
That unprecedented journey to the quarter finals was the last time Cameroon progressed beyond the first round and if they want to make the quarters this time around, too, they need Eto’ to fire in Friday’s encounter and the subsequent matches.
With Alex Song and Enoh Eyong offering a solid bedrock to the Cameroon midfield, Mexico are likely to focus their attack on the flanks, where Herrera’s wingbacks will look to get behind the defence.
Natal is the closest of the host venues to Africa but it is the sight of the sombrero and the sound of the mariachi band that have been most evident in the resort city in the days leading up to the match.
The dream of those fans is a first quarter final since Mexico hosted the 1986 tournament but defeat to Cameroon on Friday is likely to see them bow out in the group stage for the first time since 1978.