FOXBORO, Mass. — Six days before the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil is scrambling to be ready to host the tournament. It has company, as more than a few participating national teams are doing the same.
Portugal defeated Mexico 1-0 in a high-profile World Cup tune-up game on Friday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., but both teams showed that they too remain “works-in-progress” as the start of soccer’s showcase event draws perilously near.
Mexico’s performance against the FIFA’s third-ranked team should be a source of encouragement. Mexico seized the initiative and controlled play for large stretches of the game. “El Tri” would have scored at least once had its shooting been sharper and Portugal goalkeeper Eduardo not made a string of saves.
But it was far from a flawless showing. Portugal created a number of quality scoring chances before Bruno Alves scored the game-winner in second-half stoppage time. Moutinho set up Alves’ goal with a free kick he took from a not-very-dangerous position, and Mexico defenders will be unhappy about conceding in that situation.
Mexico showed that it is growing increasingly comfortable with Herrera’s system (he only assumed the head coach’s job in October 2013). El Tri has depth in attack (Manchester United’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez made an impact in a super-sub’s role) and can score in a number of ways.
Mexico’s goalkeeper controversy shows no sign of subsiding, as starter Jose Corona and substitute Guillermo Ochoa each performed well in 45 minutes of action.
Midfielder Hector Herrera can become a World Cup star if he maintains his current form. Herrera, 24, was impressive, despite playing against Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho, two of the world’s top center midfielders. Herrera was aggressive, ambitious and one of the game’s standout performers.
Portugal was missing Pepe, Raul Meireles and the incomparable Cristiano Ronaldo but still won. Portugal can go far in Brazil if those three are close to 100 percent physically, but what are the chances of that happening? Without them, Portugal can be beaten by any of their Group G opponents, Germany, Ghana and the United States.
At times, Portugal was explosive going forward, and Eder had plenty of chances to score. But Mexico largely contained the threat during the run of play. That probably wouldn’t have been the case had its captain Ronaldo been available. Nani also needs to make a greater impact after a muted showing against Mexico.
Portugal had a few sloppy moments defensively, and the three yellow cards its defenders received should concern head coach Paolo Bento. While Alves remains a rock at the back (and apparently a goal threat at the other end of the field), Portugal can’t afford to lose any starting defenders through injury or suspension because their replacements may not withstand the heat of the World Cup battle.
One thing Portugal can be sure of is that it is set at center midfield. Veloso was understated but good. Moutinho showed that he is and will continue to be the man in the middle for his country. Add Meireles to the mix, and that’s three central midfielders who can confidently face the best the world has to offer.
When the World Cup kicks off next week, both Portugal and Mexico will be fitter, sharper and hungrier than they were on Friday. Like Brazil, they have no choice. Whether the venues and teams are ready, the games will begin, and the competition will be fiercer than it was at any World Cup tune-up game anywhere in the soccer world.
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