Mexico Still in the Race

Raúl Jiménez's Chilena provided the spark to keep Mexico in the race to qualify for the 2014 World Cup
by Brendan Doherty   |   Tuesday, October 15, 2013

 MEX Matters - column on Liga MX, El Tri & Mexican futbol.

Throughout the 1st half hour of manager Víctor Manuel Vuceitch's 2-1 debut win, the Mexican Men’s National Team players seemed stuck between 2 minds.

Returning captain Rafael Márquez exuded calm and patience on the ball, whereas some of the attacking players showed glimpses of panic in a must-win game by hopefully lobbing crosses into the box.

Unlike previous matches under former coach José Manuel de la Torre, Vuce's men kept plugging away with smart balls into the feet of forwards and this perseverance paid off in the end with a memorable goal.

Vucetich may have shown his golden touch with the national team, but Tuesday night's game is just as important. If Mexico loses in Costa Rica while Panama defeats the United States, El Tri will still be watching next year's World Cup on television.

Knocking on the door

By the end of the 1st half Mexico's attack was positioned like an NBA team, knocking the ball around the 3-point arc looking for an opening. Mexico played the ball from the left corner, to the edge of the 18-yard box, back into center midfield and then into the channel on the right side.

When this measured approach failed to produce fruit for El Tri, players knocked several angled balls into the box towards the striker partnership of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Oribe Peralta. Try as they might, these balls pumped into the box from central and wider positions towards 5'9” Hernández and 5'10” Peralta were easily cleared by 6'1” Felipe Baloy and 6'2” Roman Torres.

Mexico found a breakthrough in the 40th minute after a great link-up play between Chicharito and Peralta. A pass from midfield towards Chicharito's feet was cleared by a Panamanian central defender, but when he stepped up to intercept the pass he was subsequently pulled out of position for the rest of the play. The blocked pass fell to Carlos Peña who found Peralta just inside the area and the Santos Laguna forward played a give-and-go with his strike partner.

Chicharito curled a great lobbed pass on a half volley into space over top of the remaining defender. Peralta peeled around his man to run onto the pass, took a deft touch to set up a strike, and hit the ball sweetly on a full volley into the far post.

Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa, who was starting in goal for the 1st World Cup Qualifier since the 0-0 home draw against the United States on March 26, showed command of his area late in the half by strongly punching out a cross, but his defenders were necessarily doing him any favors.

In the 45th minute, Miguel Layún was hedging Panama's attacker down the right side and prevented him from cutting inside or running to the line. The Panamanian player did put a rather innocuous cross into the box that left back Jorge Torres Nilo should have played.

Instead, Torres Nilo watched the ball come into the area and allowed it to bounce near the 6-yard box. Luckily there were no Panama players charging down the cross or Ochoa would have had problems with the play, which was an eerie foreshadowing of the lack of proper communication in Mexico's backline.

Similar themes, almost a brace

The 2nd half started with many of the same themes that developed in the opening 45 minutes. Mexico won a bunch of corners without taken advantage of any. Panama's midfield continued their physical presence. Mexico's defense exhibited frailties that made Panama's attacking players lick their lips.

Panama's right winger, Alberto Quintero, made quick work of Mexico's left back Torres Nilo before floating in a dangerous cross that led to a corner kick. While Mexico was not dominating the game, the team was able to deal with what a clearly revitalized Panama tried. Just as perhaps the game was slipping away from Mexico, the team was handed a lifeline in a form of a penalty kick.

Javier Aquino made a diagonal run into the box and was brought down by an aerial challenge from full back Harold Cummings. Chicharito dropped into midfield to receive the ball before firing a long ball over the top for Aquino to chase. As Aquino jumped up to control the bouncing ball, he went down under contact in his back from Panama's defender.

With the opportunity to put Mexico in the driver's seat and control their own destiny towards Brazil 2014, Chicharito stepped up to take the penalty in the 58th minute. Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo stared down the Manchester United forward and easily saved a weak shot low to his left side.

While Chicharito may have attempted to slot the ball under the diving goalkeeper, the shot was not hit hard enough or accurately enough, and even if it had been, the shot selection would have still been a poor one.

In the 65th minute, the energetic Aquino had to leave the field due to a groin problem and was replaced by Christian “Chaco” Giménez. The Cruz Azul attacking midfielder found himself with a brilliant chance just 5 minutes later. Miguel Layún hit a brilliant pass from the right side of the field across the face of the 18-yard box to find Chaco running diagonally into the area. The pass found him well open but Chaco lashed at a first time volley that soared miles over the goal instead of taking a touch to set himself first.

This sequence was just 1 example of the quality of service that Layún offers the Mexican national team. He can provide right and left footed service from several different angles, as can push to the endline or cut back to play in-swinging crosses or play early crosses before the defense are properly set.

Giovani dos Santos didn't have a great game starting out of position on the right wing. He wasn't the center of attention but did put in a lot of work off the ball drawing defender and opening up space for his teammates.

Fernando Arce replaced Gio as a box-to-box midfielder in a move that can be seen as Vucetich trying to shore up a 1-0 lead. This substitution comes after an out-and-out winger in Aquino made way for a slower more methodical attacking midfielder in Chaco Giménez. Contrast this with Julio César Dely's changes for Panama.

Panama makes things interesting

In the 68th minute, 2-way midfielder Gabriel Gomez was replaced by forward Luis Tejada. In the 75th minute Jairo Jiménez came on for Marcos Sanchez and just 4 minutes later Gabriel Torres provided fresh legs for FC Dallas forward Blas Perez. As a whole Panama brought on younger and more attacking players while Mexico introduced veteran midfielders.

After Chicharito failed his chance from the penalty spot, the dread among Mexico fans was that a Panama growing in confidence would make the team regret that miss. That fear actualized in the 81st minute.

In the build-up to Panama's equalizing goal, Hugo Ayala made a mistake trying to clear the initial ball played in by Panama. Then Rafa Márquez slipped as he stepped up to challenge Colorado Rapids forward Gabriel Torres who had the ball just outside the area. As Márquez failed to recover, Ayala did nothing, Layún was covering another attacking player on the right side and Jorge Torres Nilo was ball-watching in a deeper position that kept Luis Tejada onside.

Each of the defenders could have done something to prevent the ensuing one-v-one situation against Ochoa but none of them did. Ayala could have cleared the ball properly, Márquez could have stayed at home and allowed one of three midfield players to challenge Torres. Ayala and Layún could have marked Tejada's run going into the box but they assumed the back four was going to hold a line in order to operate an offside trap. Unfortunately for Mexico, Jorge Torres Nilo, who has been the first choice left back for most of this World Cup Qualification cycle, had another mental lapse.

Some observers have criticized how long it took Memo Ochoa to come off his line or how he wasn't able to get a hand on the ball as Tejada went past him. Ochoa was left hung out to dry by an awful sequence from his entire backline. There is plenty of blame to go around for conceding such a soft goal, but very little if any should be directed at Ochoa.

That goal by Panama substitute Luis Tejada did more than just tie the match. That goal put Panama ahead of Mexico in the Hexagonal standings with one game left to play; Panama hosting a depleted, already qualified United States while Mexico has to face Costa Rica in San Jose.

GOLAZO!

With things looking bleak for Mexico, perhaps an unlikely hero stood up to provide a memorable goal. Defensive midfielder Jesús Zavala made way for “El Olimpico” Raúl Jiménez. The Club America talisman was on the field for less than two minutes before he did one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen in a live televised soccer match.

Jiménez drove up the field with the ball down the center before dishing it wide right to Chicharito. Chicharito faked as though he was going to drive to the endline before dropping a pass back into central midfield to find Arce. The Tijuana midfielder took a touch to set himself before sending a whipped pass into Jiménez at the top of the area. Jiménez saw the pass was bouncing up on him and decided to hit the ball up with his right instep as he stepped away from goal.

This touch popped the ball up high enough for Jiménez to execute near-perfect form on a right-footed chilena. The shot was so good that goalkeeper Jaime Penedo was rooted to the ground as he watched the ball knick the inside his right hand post on its way in from 17 yards. Describing the Jiménez goal, ESPN commentator Fernando Palomo said, “That's a shot most people try on videogames and they still fail at it.”

After 4 excruciatingly long stoppage time minutes, which included a dubious penalty shout and a quality opportunity for Peña to seal three points on a counter attack, Mexico had done enough to beat Panama at Estadio Azteca.

NEXT UP: October 15 – WCQ: Costa Rica vs. Mexico, National Stadium, San José, Costa Rica. 9:30 p.m. EST, Telemundo.

Brendan DOHERTY

Nationality:
USA
College:
Hamilton College
Club Domestic:
Rochester Rhinos, RBNY
Club Foreign:
Tottenham, Club América
Household Jeopardy champion from a small town in Upstate New York. Simultaneously brought to Tottenham Hotspur by a youth coach & given a copy of FIFA 2004. Enthusiastically pragmatic & a student of the game. Covering the Mexican National Team & Liga MX.
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