Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Getting a taste for Mexican mania

All Whites boss Ricki Herbert admits his side have it all to do after he watches Azteca Stadium go wild with comeback win

Mexico remain the most likely opponents for the All Whites in November but coach Ricki Herbert remains confident that going to Mexico City won't be mission impossible.

Along with 105,000 Mexican fans, Herbert was at the Azteca Stadium yesterday to see the home side take on Panama in a game pivotal in deciding fourth place in the Concacaf playoffs.

A freakish Mexican goal put El Tri in a strong position to qualify for the November matches.

Panama were just five minutes away from holding on for a famous 1-1 draw, which would have left the small Central American nation with the advantage, when replacement striker Raul Jimenez scored with a wonderful bicycle kick in the 86th minute to secure a vital 2-1 win.

Given the occasion, it will go down as one of the most important goals in their footballing history and certainly the most skilful seen at the Azteca Stadium since Manuel Negrete's strike at the 1986 World Cup, where he scored a spectacular scissor kick from just inside the penalty area against Bulgaria.

The result takes Mexico three points ahead of Panama, with just one game remaining in the Hexagonal series. The All Whites would still be underdogs against Panama but they would be a preferred opponent to Mexico.

Mexico have lost just twice in 78 official games at the Azteca Stadium and remain a formidable football side, even if they have been slightly dormant in recent months.

"[Mexico] are obviously a quality side and you could argue, player for player, they are still the best team in Concacaf despite their recent run," Herbert told the Herald on Sunday. "We already knew how hard it was going to be but coming here, you can see they take their support to another level. The volume of people, not just inside the ground - there were thousands more outside and all around the stadium - was incredible.

"It is a very difficult place to come and take something away but it's all about resilience and character. We showed plenty of that in the past, so why not again?"

It's difficult to comprehend just how difficult the task would be in November. As well as facing a team with stars from the Premier League, La Liga and other European leagues, the All Whites will also need to contend with a giant stadium full of fanatical fans and the altitude (2400m) is the same height as Mt Ngauruhoe.

"To give ourselves the best chance when we come to a place like this, we need to be internally confident and be in the right mental head space," says Herbert.

"We wouldn't want to be coming home facing a strong deficit. We want to come here and take something back.

"It is about having that solidity at the back and not getting exposed but having enough momentum going forward. We need to be good enough to take any chances, get on the ball and make the right decisions when we do."

Among the thousands of Mexican fans yesterday, Herbert, who attended with team manager Brian Turner, didn't go to the dangerous extremes of wearing a Panama hat but he was one of the few who was smiling when the Central American side grabbed their equaliser in the 81st minute.

"Mexico had dominated early and when they took the lead, it looked like they would go on and be relatively comfortable with the result," says Herbert. "But then Panama scored. It went incredibly quiet and there seemed to be a bit of deflation. For us, that threw a real twist into the equation and we thought for a moment we could be potentially heading to Panama. But now Mexico are in the box seat."

Herbert is confident that if his team can limit the damage in the first leg, the opposition might struggle to cope in the second.

"[Coming here] would be a huge assignment but the flip side is the Mexicans travelling all the way to New Zealand," says Herbert. "They probably haven't been to New Zealand and certainly won't know anything about Westpac Stadium so there are some strong positives."

In the final round of matches on Thursday, Mexico travel to Costa Rica, Panama host the United States and winless Jamaica are at home to Honduras. Meanwhile, the All Whites play MLS side Chivas USA today and Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday.

- Herald on Sunday

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