Goalkeeper Memo Ochoa rises to the occasion again, emerging as hero in penalty kick shoot-out.
Mexico’s Gold Cup run began in earnest Saturday night as they faced a decent Costa Rica side in Houston. After an easy 9-point group stage campaign (wins over Cuba, Canada and Martinique), the knockout round would prove to be a different kettle of fish for El Tri.
Costa Rica are no underdogs and they are led up front by former Arsenal player Joel Campbell, who knows plies his trade in Mexico with Leon. Everyone knew the Ticos would pose Mexico’s first real test, but it was unclear how that test would manifest itself.
That question was soon answered when it was clear, early in the first half, that Costa Rica would sit back, concede possession and try to hit El Tri on the counter. While this was disappointing, it was not wholly unexpected.
Mexico play their best football when teams come at them, creating space in behind the defense for the wingers and the striker, who can exploit avenues of attack into the opponent’s box. When teams sit back, remaining compact and solid in their defensive third, El Tri finds it much more difficult to break teams down.
This proved to be the case Saturday night and Mexico looked to be in for a long night. That is until Rodolfo Pizarro’s pinpoint pass found Raul Jimenez in the Costa Rican box. After a neat piece of skill, Raul calmly fired past the goalkeeper from close range.
It could be forgiven if you hoped Mexico would press on and dominate after the opening goal. But it was not meant to be, in large part because of a ref who quite honestly left a lot to be desired.
The ref was fooled into giving Costa Rica a soft penalty when Rodriguez put his leg out in the box, a big no no in the modern game as it gifts the attacker an opportunity to go down and claim a penalty. Even though replays showed that there was no contact whatsoever, it is understandable that the ref would give a penalty for a situation like that. Bryan Ruiz converted for Costa Rica.
The “non-penalty” would have hit home hard for Mexico fans given the date of this game, which coincidentally fell on the same date when Holland’s Arjen Robben famously dived for a penalty in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil which eventually knocked Mexico out of the tournament.
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At 1-1, the game stalemated into a chaotic, repetitive game of defensive, counter attacking football and both sides had several decent chances. After a period of extra time, it eventually fell to penalties.
Jimenez surprised everyone by missing Mexico’s first penalty but they fought back and Memo Ochoa heroically saved the final one to give El Tri a 5-4 win on penalties.
Mexico, the fans and, most importantly, Coach “Tata” Martino will have taken a lot from this game and hopefully he will focus on attacking plays ahead of the next game.
We can hope that while the players need to focus more and work on their offensive style, Their togetherness and fighting spirit was clear for all to see and that will benefit them in the rounds to come.
The next game will not be easy by any means and Mexico will need to come back stronger if they wish to win this year’s Gold Cup.