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Mexico Eyes Last Chance to Qualify for World Cup

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November 13, 2013

Mexico is barely hanging on to an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup. El Tri is usually heavy favorites at their imposing, 105,000-capacity Azteca Stadium in D.F., but has won just once in 5 home games

Mexico City, Mexico - Mexico will seek to put their nightmarish World Cup qualifying campaign behind today when they host New Zealand in the first leg of a last-chance intercontinental playoff.

The Mexicans are usually overwhelming favorites against smaller football nations like the 'All Whites' at their imposing, 105,000-capacity Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. But El Tri won just once in five home games in the final qualifying round of the North, Central America, and Caribbean (CONCACAF) group, finishing fourth out of six teams.

While the United States, Costa Rica, and Honduras won direct tickets to Brazil, Mexico barely secured the playoff - a surprisingly poor showing for a powerhouse that was last absent from a World Cup in 1990. The dismal results led the football federation to fire three managers in six weeks, finally handing the reins to Miguel Herrera last month for the two-game playoff.

The outspoken manager, who led Club America to a domestic title this year, voiced confidence that his squad can win at home and in the return leg in New Zealand on November 20th. "The first thing we said was that we shouldn't think about what happened in the past because that's something we can't resolve," Herrera said. "We are going to win in Mexico and we will also seek to win in New Zealand," he told reporters last weekend.

Fans have soured on their team, with 60 percent saying in a poll last month that Mexico didn't deserve to qualify. Experts have warned that missing the World Cup would cost sponsors and broadcasters more than $600 million. Herrera has shaken things up since taking over, calling up only players from the domestic league while leaving out European-based stars, including Manchester United's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Villareal's Giovani dos Santos.

He said Mexico would seek to exploit New Zealand's loss of its captain, defender Winston Reid, who was ruled out of the playoff with an ankle injury suffered playing for his English Premier League club West Ham. But New Zealand striker Rory Fallon said the 'All Whites' familiarity with the intercontinental playoff system could be to their advantage.

Fallon famously scored the goal against Bahrain in the second leg of their playoff that sent New Zealand to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This time, however, the 'All Whites' face a much stronger side that played in 14 of the last 19 World Cups. New Zealand has appeared in only two World Cups: Spain in 1982 and South Africa in 2010.

"Nobody in the world would have anticipated having Mexico in a playoff. We certainly didn't," said New Zealand manager Ricki Herbert. Herbert said he thought today's match will be "one of the hardest, if not the hardest" New Zealand has ever faced.