Defending Olympic gold not impossible for Mexico

The gold medal for El Tri in men's football at the London 2012 Olympics brought Mexicans flowing out of their houses and offices and onto the streets in celebration.

Quite simply, it was Mexico's most important football moment on the international stage, especially as El Tri defeated a star-studded, Neymar-led Brazil in the final at Wembley Stadium, the self-proclaimed home of the sport. The title of a subsequent documentary -- "Gold: The day that everything changed"-- summed up the sentiment in Mexico.

It's a fine line between putting too much emphasis on the Olympics when the overriding objective of any national team program is to take glory at World Cups. But in Mexico, the Olympics men's football tournament was seen not just as a single moment, but as a turning point for the game in general. It was a springboard onto greater things at the full international level. The Olympic gold was heralded as the reward for work put in by many Liga MX clubs and the Mexican federation at youth level, just like Mexico's U-17 World Cup win in 2011.

"It's a very important moment for Mexican football," El Tri's Olympic coach Luis Fernando Tena said at the time. "It's a great moment for us. Our youngsters have developed great mental strength and our football is improving considerably."

While since then the full national team can't be said to have improved significantly off the back of the gold, defending the title with dignity is not just a test to see where the national team program currently stands, but to prove a point that what happened four years ago in England was no fluke. The fact that the games are in Brazil, with the host nation intent on winning its first ever gold in the competition, and that Neymar is set to play, makes it all the more poignant.

Mexico will not be taken lightly this time around and will head to Rio de Janeiro as a team to avoid.

El Tri's preparation has not gone smoothly of late, with coach Raul Gutierrez's squad losing warm-up games to Portugal and Japan in March, but only a shell of the team that will feature in Rio traveled to Europe for the matches.

Looking at the squad 100 days from the start of the Games, the base of Mexico's side for Rio is as exciting as the one in London, even if some of the key players -- Hirving Lozano, Erick Gutierrez, Orbelin Pineda -- are much younger than the Under-23 age limit. And El Tri doesn't have any of the really big names like a Giovani dos Santos this time around.

Just like in London, one of the crucial questions will be in picking the three over-aged players each team is allowed. At the last Olympics, Oribe Peralta shone upfront, while Carlos Salcido and Jesus Corona provided a solid base at the back.

This time around, Benfica's Raul Jimenez has said that his club could be willing to cede him for the tournament. With Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez having ruled himself out, Jimenez would be a perfect striker for the Olympic team to boast, while a goalkeeper and either a center-back or holding midfielder would be the other priorities. Get those picks right -- perhaps a including a natural leader like Andres Guardado -- and Mexico's chances greatly increase.

Another key question will surround the involvement of Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, the Porto winger on course to be Mexico's next star player. The Sonora native qualifies for the U-23 age limit, but is likely to be a starter at June's Copa America, meaning it will be up to Porto whether he can feature at both competitions.

Tactical issues linger about which formation is best and where younger players like Monterrey center-back Cesar Montes and Chivas box-to-box midfielder Pineda may fit in.

But overall, Mexico's team has the potential to make a run for another medal. A group featuring South Korea, Germany and Fiji shouldn't worry Mexico, but it does contain a European giant in Germany and a side in South Korea that tends to take these tournaments seriously.

If El Tri gets through the group stage and advances to the final, the game everyone wants to see is against hosts Brazil. The South American side needs an Olympic gold medal to complete its clean sweep on the international stage. It is also looking to exorcise, at least in part, the ghost of that 7-1 defeat in the World Cup semifinal in Belo Horizonte against Germany two years ago.

Mexico won't fear a potential match against Brazil and it would make for a fascinating repeat of the 2012 final. Once again, Brazil would be favorites, but betting against Mexico at youth level in recent years tends to leave one empty-handed.