For a moment, even if it was brief, it felt like Mexico was starting to lose control. The crowd was restless. The players seemed anxious. The manager? Visibly frustrated as he was issued a yellow card for barking from the bench.
Gerardo 'Tata' Martino's team was facing adversity, real adversity, unlike any they'd experienced in his tenure. Sure, there were challenges against Canada and, of course, friendlies against world-class opponents have tested the mettle of Martino's Mexico.
But, staring down that challenge from an overmatched opponent that looked anything but afraid, El Tri showed off the ability to remain calm and, ultimately, grind out a result in a tournament that requires just that.
Mexico completed a perfect Gold Cup group stage, and extended Martino's unbeaten run as El Tri manager to seven consecutive wins, as they topped Martinique 3-2 at Bank of America Stadium. The result was exactly what the score indicates: a nervy affair that felt way too close for comfort for a Mexico team that has generally looked comfortable since Martino took over.
The first half was simple enough, with El Tri largely in control despite some moments of frustration. It wasn't crisp and it certainly wasn't pretty, but it was a half that was largely without struggle.
If that half was one of controlled calm, it was headlined by Uriel Antuna's uncontrollable backflip through the Charlotte air. The LA Galaxy youngster, on loan from Manchester City, had just fired his fourth goal in three matches, cementing himself more firmly into Martino's plans. Veterans like Rodolfo Pizarro will have to wait in line as Antuna has proven he fully belongs with this El Tri group just four appearances into his senior international career.
The second half was where things unravelled a bit. Martinique slowly, but surely, built into the game, even if their improvement produced no clear cut chances from open play. A set piece, though, was all they needed, as Kevin Parsemain curled in what might just end up being a Goal of the Tournament contender from a free-kick just outside the box, concerning the El Tri-heavy crowd and seemingly waking up a giant that had momentarily fallen into slumber.
It took just five minutes for the head of that giant, Raul Jimenez, to spark to life, tapping home a magnificent cross from Pizarro to unleash a group exhalation from the 59,283 in attendance. In the buildup to the tournament Jimenez was earmarked as perhaps Mexico's most vital piece. There's no Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, no Carlos Vela, no Hirving Lozano to carry the weight in the attack. Instead, that load falls to Jimenez and, once again, he delivered.
He did so yet again on Mexico's third, helping cap what probably was El Tri's best sequence of the night for Fernando Navarro's 72nd-minute goal. It was an example of the free-flowing style that Martino has brought with him from Barcelona to Argentina to Atlanta, and it ended up proving vital.
Because for the final few moments, Mexico finally had their nerve tested. A Jordy Delem goal fueled frustration once again and, in the moments following, you could feel the tension. That tension led to a yellow card for Martino and, for the first time all tournament, it felt like Mexico was truly facing adversity. Canada had provided some, giving Mexico moments of doubt in a 3-1 El Tri win, but for the first time this Gold Cup, it felt like Mexico was losing a bit of control.
It never truly happened, as El Tri buckled down and handled the final difficult moments against a Martinique team that, on paper, shouldn't have presented them with many problems. This is a Martinique side that, although tricky, is not even eligible for FIFA membership and has won just three of their 17 Gold Cup matches heading into Sunday's clash.
But these are the tests that come along the way, even if you are Mexico. And in a way, escaping with a win constitutes a passing grade, even if more difficult moments almost certainly loom on the horizon. When all was said and done, they finished with a pass completion rate of 95 percent and outshot the opposition 24-8 but, looked at from another angle, the numbers feel misleading. The stats say that Mexico controlled the match when, in the end, it felt like that grip on the game was weaker than it could have been.
Mexico will look ahead towards a knockout round matchup against either Haiti or Costa Rica and, after surviving a bit of a scare in a game that realistically mattered little in the grand scheme of things, they'll be glad to leave Martinique behind and look towards what they expect to be better performances and brighter days.