Mexico had already booked a place in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario, but Jesús “Tecatito” Corona’s wonder goal against Venezuela could prove to be invaluable. Corona’s spectacular solo effort with nine minutes remaining in Houston secured a 1-1 draw against Venezuela and, barring freak results Tuesday, means El Tri will avoid having to take on tournament favorites Argentina in the last eight.
With the point, Mexico finished ahead of Venezuela at the top of Group C and will face the runner-up from Group D at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, Saturday. The opponent looks set to be either Chile or Panama, both of which go into their final group match Tuesday level on three points, with Chile having the slight advantage in goal difference. Argentina, who will take on Bolivia, has six points and a six-goal advantage in goal differential. It would take something extraordinary for Mexico’s group win not to carry the reward of avoiding Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Mexico's designs to win the competition mean it will likely have to face Argentina at some stage, but it would certainly rather not do so as early as the quarterfinals. That’s why it was somewhat surprising that coach Juan Carlos Osorio made nine changes to his starting lineup for the encounter with Venezuela.
But after José Velázquez’s fine acrobatic volley gave Venezuela the lead, Osorio showed how important it was to him to top the group. Corona, Miguel Layun and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández all made their way off the bench and had a big impact in bringing about an equalizer — particularly, of course, Corona.
Altering his lineup has been a feature of Osorio’s time in charge, which, after Monday’s turn around, has still yet to yield a defeat in 10 matches. Indeed, he has selected a different goalkeeper in each match of the Copa America group stage. Still, it would be a shock were the established core of players not to lineup for the quarterfinals. That would mean Corona, Layun and Hernández coming back in, along with Rafa Márquez and, likely, the goalkeeper who started the first game, Alfredo Talavera.
After three wins out of three at the Copa America and an undefeated streak that stretches to 22 games and almost 12 months, Mexico should be feeling confident, no matter which opponent it faces in the last eight. Chile is the most likely opponent, as they only need to draw against Panama. And as the defending champion, Chile would certainly not be a pushover for Mexico. But signs suggest the South American champion is not the force it was when it beat Argentina in the final on home soil last July to win its first ever international title.
The loss of coach Jorge Sampaoli at the start of the year was a real blow, and replacement Juan Antonio Pizzi has yet to prove he can maintain the high standards people have come to expect. In the opening game of the Copa America Centenario, Chile fell hard against Argentina, despite what the narrow 2-1 scoreline suggested. And against a Bolivia team that has won just one Copa America match since 1997, Chile needed a controversial penalty in the 10th minute of injury time to seal a crucial win. Any team that possesses Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez is not to be taken lightly, but there should be nothing to fear for Mexico.
Panama does not possess individual players of Chile’s quality, but Mexico will know not to take Los Canaleros lightly. The two teams squared off in an infamous Gold Cup semifinal last July when Mexico denied Panama victory with a fiercely debated penalty in injury time before going onto win courtesy of another penalty in extra time. Although Mexico has never lost to Panama, its current run of five wins all came with a one-goal margin.
Regardless of the identity of the opponent, Osorio will be eager to see a complete 90-minute performance from his side. In all three games so far, Mexico has allowed its opponent opportunities in the game. Against higher-quality opposition, such carelessness will surely be punished.
But in topping Group C, Mexico has also shown that, when on its game and blessed with individual talent like Corona, it is a real threat to end the tournament with the trophy in hand.