MEXICO CITY—Mexico needed three points. All 100,000 fans at Azteca Stadium knew that. And in the end they got what they needed, winning 2-1 over the United States in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
The popular opinion was that a draw would effectively have equaled a loss for Mexico in Wednesday afternoon’s match. Sitting in fourth place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, El Tri needed three points to keep pace with the leading teams. With ten minutes to go, however, they were level and didn’t look much like scoring the winner. But an 82nd minute strike from Miguel Sabah earned the home side a vital win against their most hated rivals.
A relatively cool sunny day greeted the players as they stepped onto the field--perfect conditions for football--and the Mexicans, as expected, charged into the attack from the get-go. In the 6th minute, Giovanni Dos Santos picked up the ball on the right side, tricked his way around Clint Dempsey and surged into the final third. His pass was eventually picked out and the threat neutralized, but the youngster had made his intentions known that he would be a factor on the day.
However, his time would have to wait.
In the ninth minute, another exciting youngster took the spotlight. A brilliant through ball from Landon Donovan found Charlie Davies in open space behind the right side of the Mexican defense. The Sochaux striker blazed past both Johnny Magallon and Ricardo Osorio and made no mistake with his curling shot to the far post. Goalkeeper Memo Ochoa was stranded helplessly, and the Yanks were improbably up 1-0--the first time the U.S. had ever taken the lead at Azteca.
The crowd was shaken. Azteca’s deafening noise subsided. And things looked bleak. Until the 19th minute, that is, when Blanco injected life back into the Mexico attack.
Floating wide to the left, the Chicago Fire midfielder drew two defenders to him, then toe-poked the ball to Israel Castro, alone in the space vacated by the two U.S. defenders just outside the U.S. area. Castro took one touch forward and lashed a 25-yard right-footed shot past U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard and in off the bottom of the cross bar.
The stadium erupted in noise and a tidal wave of green shirts. El Tri were level and in the ascendancy. All was good with the world again.
Four minutes later, Blanco and Dos Santos linked up on the left side. A quick one-two and Dos Santos streaked past Jay Demerit. He was flagged offside, but his low hard shot just wide of the right post brought 100,000 fans to their feet, anyway.
As the first half rolled on, the U.S. began to fatigue, victims of the altitude and the constant chasing. They slowed down on their defensive pressure while Mexico strung passes together with ease. Oguchi Onyewu picked up a silly booking that will suspend him from the next international game.
In the 29th minute, nifty interplay with Andres Guardado saw Dos Santos again scampering down the left side again, past Steve Cherundolo. Demerit was slow to shift defensively and his hard slide tackle arrived late, earning the Watford centerback a yellow card. Blanco’s ensuing freekick curled dangerously toward the U.S. goal, and Howard was forced to punch it away.
The U.S. struggled to mount an attack of some sort. The only good chances before the half came from long freekicks that resulted in nothing.
When the halftime whistle came, the Americans’ relief was visible and the Mexican’s swagger palpable.
Mexico picked up where they left off before the break, moving the ball fluidly and finding joy on the left side again. But they were unable to create many chances. Gerardo Torrado had a chance to play Guillermo Franco at the far post, but his cross sailed out for a goalkick.
A little before the half-hour mark, both teams started making subs. Blanco came off to a standing ovation and a chores of “Cuauhtemoc, Cuauhtemoc,” replaced by Arsenal starlet Carlos Vela, who was so effective in the Gold Cup final last month. The U.S. made a double switch, bringing Benny Feilhaber on for Brian Ching and Stuart Holden on for Brian Ching.
In the 59th, Vela showed just why he’s worthy of replacing the iconic Blanco. The 20-year-old slalomed past Holden and squared a pass to Guardado wide on the left. The Deportivo la Coruna winger drove a cross to an open Dos Santos on the far side. Dos Santos had time to collect the ball, take a touch to set himself up, and fire a low, left-footed shot that Howard dove to save.
The U.S. finally mounted an attack in the 71st minute, when some clever interplay at midfield unleashed Holden on the right side. His cross narrowly missed Davies’s head. A minute later, Davies sprinted down a through ball but was whistled for offside. It was a dubious call replays showed, but a huge sigh of relief from the fans hinted at the building's tensions.
Emotions finally spilled over in the 75th minute. After a Dos Santos freekick was blocked by Davies, the striker collapsed to the turf. The Mexicans tried to pull him up, thinking he was time-wasting and a shoving match broke out. The upshot was yellow cards to Torrado and Feilhaber; both were lucky not to be sent off after raising their hands to each other.
After the altercation, the U.S. seemed to lose any inclination to go forward, despite the introduction of Jozy Altidore. And they paid the price for it minutes later.
In the 82nd minute, Efrain Juarez drove in on the right side of the U.S. area. Two U.S. defenders --Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra -- collapsed on him and his desperation shot ricocheted off Demerit and fell to Miguel Sabah, who had just come on for Franco. The Morelia striker spun and slammed a close-range shot over Howard’s shoulder.
Azteca immediately burst to life, an intimidating arena of sound and fury, and the important three points were in the bag.
After Honduras's win over Costa Rica, Mexico now has nine points, still in 4th place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal standings. The U.S. remain on 10 points, but drop to 3rd place, behind Honduras on goal differential.
Greg Lalas, Goal.com
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