Juan Carlos Osorio must wait and hope over Mexico injury concerns
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio would have liked to name his final 23-man squad for Russia 2018 on Monday, to eliminate all the speculation and uncertainty inside what has become a close-knit group.
But he didn't have that luxury. A worrisome injury situation has descended upon Mexico's World Cup preparations, leading Osorio to bring 28 players into camp, which starts this week at the federation's training complex just outside Mexico City.
Five players on the list would not be available if the tournament started tomorrow, confirmed Osorio: Andres Guardado, Nestor Araujo, Diego Reyes, Jonathan dos Santos and Giovani dos Santos. Of those five, Guardado, Araujo and Reyes would be likely starters.
Alarm bells sounded louder when Osorio said Guardado would require surgery and could arrive in Mexico as early as Wednesday to get it over with as soon as possible. Mexico's coach would not be drawn on the specifics of the injury, but Guardado is one of the team's captains and has become a vital player in the heart of the midfield alongside Hector Herrera.
"I don't want to make the mistake of not using the correct terms," Osorio said when asked about the Guardado injury. "I spoke with Betis ... and Andres will travel to Mexico and will undergo surgery as soon as possible and if the operation goes as expected, we hope that will be the solution."
The race to fitness for the 31-year-old midfielder is likely to be one of the key topics as El Tri counts down to Russia. Guardado indicated on Monday that he was confident of being back in training in "10 or 12 days," but there is a certain amount of unknown surrounding Mexico's other injury concerns, too.
A report from May 9 suggested Reyes could be out for four weeks with a "right thigh tear." If that is true, a player who was becoming Osorio's first choice in central midfield will be touch and go to make the first game on June 17. Even not being able to train in a period so vital for Osorio is a huge setback.
There is better news for center-back Araujo, who may not have played since his meniscus injury on March 27 but is at least back in full training at Santos Laguna and should be able to join the squad and get minutes in friendlies against Wales (May 28), Scotland (June 2) and Denmark (June 9).
Meanwhile, there has been little by way of news about the extent of injuries suffered by Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos.
The fact Osorio has been forced to include five extra names will increase speculation about who will be cut before the 23-player squad travels to Europe on the night of June 3.
It is likely that Edson Alvarez, Oswaldo Alanis and Hugo Ayala will fight it out for one spot, should Araujo and Reyes be declared fit. Alvarez's strength is his ability to play at right-back, center-back and defensive midfield, while Alanis is left-footed and a natural back-up at left center-back and left-back. Ayala, though, is more experienced than both.
In midfield, Osorio said Pachuca's Erick Gutierrez is a replacement for Guardado, both in case of injury and for the future, while defensive midfielder Jesus Molina's fate could depend on Reyes and Jonathan dos Santos' fitness.
Up front, Jurgen Damm has much to do and will attempt to make his case for involvement against the likes of Javier Aquino and Giovani dos Santos.
Of those missing out completely, Chivas' Rodolfo Pizarro tops the list for many fans, but Osorio suggested there was too much competition for places.
"In Rodolfo's position as an attacking midfielder making plays, he competes with Marco Fabian, Carlos Vela and with Gio dos Santos," Osorio said. "So I think those that think he should be in have every right (to think that way), but when we come down to the final decisions and understanding that there are only 23 players ... I think it's difficult (for Pizarro) at this time."
Osorio added that Santos Laguna's Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez missed out because of Molina's superior aerial presence, while 19-year-old Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, who switched international allegiances from the United States to Mexico earlier this year, was another absentee, although he'll remain an important player ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
Overall, this is an experienced Mexico squad with no truly surprising omissions or inclusions, given it had been widely reported that 39-year-old Rafa Marquez would make the cut. The reality now, though, is that good news on the injury front could be key to El Tri's chances in Russia.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.