A misfiring El Tri faces overachieving Haiti in a Gold Cup semifinal.
Although Mexico is on course to clash with Team USA in the Gold Cup Final, El Tri can take nothing for granted. Not the way they have played in the past two games, anyway.
After the gut-wrenching penalty kick shoot-out win over Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, Coach “Tata” Martino made it clear that his team had a lot of work to do in front of goal.
Team Mexico fabricated 22 shots in 120 minutes, but managed to get just 5 of those shots on net. Despite several sustained stretches of sloppy passing, El Tri enjoyed 60% possession and were able to hold the ball in Costa Rica’s defensive third from time-to-time. But decision-making and execution left a lot to be desired.
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Right winger Uriel Antuna was ineffective after being a prominent playmaker in Mexico’s group stage games. Too many times, Antuna looked for his shot instead of finding an open teammate. Left winger Rodolfo Pizarro had flashes of absolute brilliance, but twice he misfired from close range. More worrisome, perhaps, was the poor game turned in by captain Andrés Guardado. His passing was atrocious, and he was guilty of far too many turnovers. In addition, on one fast break that was turning into a 4-on-3, “El Principito” shot way wide from 25 meters instead of sliding a pass out right to an unmarked Antuna.
The refereeing left a lot to be desired, too, but Mexico deserves credit for maintaining its poise, especially after the phantom penalty called on “Chaka” Rodríguez that produced the equalizer early in the second half.
Haiti – along with the US – are the only perfect teams remaining in the tournament. The Caribbean team has a 4-0-0 record, while scoring 9 goals and conceding 5. Coach Marc Collat’s squad upset Costa Rica in the Group B finale, giving Haiti the top spot in the group. This set up a quarterfinal match with Canada, ranked No. 78 in the FIFA World Rankings.
The Canadians opened up a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark and they could be forgiven if they began to look forward to a rematch against Team Mexico. But Haiti – ranked No. 101 in the world – was having none of it.
Haiti’s Duckens Nazon took advantage of a lazy back pass by a Canadian defender in minute 50 and cut the deficit in half. Twenty minutes later, Herve Bazile converted a penalty kick and it was 2-2. In minute 76, Wilde-Donald Guerrier scored an absolutely masterful goal (perhaps the goal of the tournament) and Haiti was leading with less than 15 minutes remaining. Canada had a goal disallowed for offsides in minute 84, but otherwise Haiti saw out the victory rather easily.
Mexico has the disadvantage of having played an overtime match late Saturday night (six field players played the entire 120 minutes), so we could see “Tata” make some changes. The poor performances by some of the players might be the reason for some changes rather than fatigue.
Defender Héctor Moreno saw action for the first time in the tournament after recovering from a groin injury – coming in for the final 15 minutes of overtime – and he could be inserted into the starting line-up. Néstor Araujo would be my candidate for replacement as he has looked shaky at the back. Midfielder Jonathan dos Santos showed signs of muscle fatigue, coming off at the 90-minute mark, so his starting spot could go to Carlos Rodríguez.
Up front, “Tata” might consider inserting Roberto Alvarado for Antuna and skipper Guardado could also be held in reserve (for Luis Montes?). As usual, the key players for El Tri against Haiti will be Raúl Jiménez up front, Edson Álvarez in midfield and fullbacks “Chaka” Rodríguez and Jesús Gallardo. The latter two, especially, will be tested as Haiti’s speed will force them to cover a lot of ground along the flanks.