By Michael Lewis
MANCHESTER, England -- One victory away from a chance at an Olympic gold medal - the first soccer medal of any kind -- Mexico is primed to make some history when it faces Japan in the semifinals at Wembley Stadium in London on Tuesday.
It must first recover from an extra-time quarterfinal victory over Senegal on Saturday, and then prepare to face Japan, which won 3-0 against a 10-man Egyptian side.
"We are good," Mexico manager Luis Fernando Tena said. "From each game we seem to get stronger and everything is OK."
Tena indicated that his pre-game message to his team will be more spiritual than tactical, saying his players "should enjoy it. This is a great experience in a sacred stadium and they should take advantage and grasp the opportunity."
In a friendly at City Ground, the stadium of Nottingham Forest five days prior to the Olympics, the Japanese defeated the Mexicans 2-1, but Tena said his opponents will see a different side on Tuesday.
"We are both stronger since that game and this will be an even match," he said. "I think it is 50-50 between both teams for who will go to the final.
"We have improved physically. We played 120 minutes in our last game and as a team we were still very strong.
"The team is all in very good spirits and everybody is improving, both in terms of quality and also mentally."
Japan has not surrendered a goal in four matches.
"We know that Japan is a team that plays good football," Tena said. "They are strong and organized and also dynamic. Their No. 7 [Yuki Otsu] is a great player and scored a brilliant goal against us in that friendly.
"But we wanted to play against them [in the semifinal]. They are a better team since the friendly, which is why they won 3-0 on Saturday."
Tena measured his comments, being sure not to give the Japanese any motivation.
"They play with order and they play controlled football," Tena said. "I also watched them in their previous games and they are very strong."
Mexico will be without midfielder Hector Herrera due to yellow card suspension.
"The fact he will not play is a loss, but we have players of quality who can replace him," Tena said.
The last and only time Mexico made it this far in an Olympics, was at home in 1968 when it lost to Bulgaria 3-2 before falling to Japan in the bronze-medal match, 2-0.
Tena, who was 10 years old at the time, said that he remembered the competition "very well."
"I thought that Mexico was on course to get a gold medal but then we lost against Bulgaria," he said. "Azteca (stadium) was full of spectators [for the bronze-medal match], but Mexico ended up losing 2-0 and I remember the goals were scored by [Kunishige] Kamamoto.
"It was very painful for us because we thought we were on for a medal. But I am not going to tell my players about that piece of history before this semifinal."
Tena is more focused on his team making some history of its own.