Almost two years to the day since Panama stunned Mexico with a 2-1 victory in the semifinals of the Gold Cup, the two teams will meet again with a place in the final on the line, and the stakes, arguably even higher.
That defeat in 2013, just two weeks after the teams had met with the same result in the group stage, cane in the middle of what was a dark year for Mexico. In addition to the soft relinquishing of their Concacaf crown, El Tri came calamitously close to failing to qualify for the World Cup. It wasn’t until Miguel Herrera’s appointment as coach late in the year that the gloom was lifted and Mexico’s place in Brazil was secured, via a playoff. Once at the World Cup, despite another Round-of-16 exit, the feel-good factor continued thanks to some positive play and the charisma of Herrera on the sidelines. All looked set for 2015 to be a big year, in which Mexico would reassert itself as the dominant force in Concacaf, regaining the Gold Cup and going onto take on the United States in the final
Instead, it has so far felt more like 2013. First came a group stage exit from the Copa America, in which Mexico had taken a “B” squad but Herrera had repeatedly insisted that a place in the final was theirs for the taking. Already the tide of opinion was turning against Herrera, especially after some politically themed tweets on the eve of elections. Still, it was the Gold Cup where the clear priorities lied.
In 2013, José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre just about survived Mexico’s earliest Gold Cup exit since 2005, but for Herrera, who described taking home the trophy as an “obligation,” anything other than victory would surely spell the end of a tenure that not long ago promised so much. Four games in, he and his team have clung on by their fingertips.
The failure to top their group after being frustrated by Guatemala and then repeatedly found wanting by Trinidad and Tobago in a ludicrous 4-4 draw meant a quarterfinal with last year’s World Cup quarterfinalists Costa Rica. After a poor first half, Mexico began to assert themselves after the break, but strikers Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela were desperately lacking a clinical touch in front of goal to capitalize. A penalty shootout looked on the cards until Herrera, who has complained repeatedly and often hollowly about referee decisions throughout the tournament, became the beneficiary of a hugely controversial call when Peralta was adjudged to have been fouled after only the merest of touches. Andrés Guardado converted from the spot to keep Mexico, just, on course.
But they will head into the semifinal with Panama with no area of the side, with the exception of Guillermo Ochoa in goal, inspiring confidence. Diego Reyes, Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez and Yasser Corona again looked vulnerable against Costa Rica; Hector Herrera, upon which such high hopes now rightly rest, has failed to recapture his Porto form; and Vela has not done nearly enough to erase memories of his long self-imposed international exile.
Panama, then, are unlikely to be daunted by the task of once again going up against Mexico in the semifinals. Yet they’re progress to the last four has also been far from smooth. One of the growing forces in Concacaf, Panama followed up its run to the 2013 Gold Cup final by coming within seconds of earning a playoff with New Zealand to go to the country’s first World Cup, only to concede two late goals to the United States and let Mexico in. At this Gold Cup, though, they are yet to win a game.
After three 1-1 draws in the group stage, Hernán Darío Gómez’s side made it four straight when being pegged back by Trinidad and Tobago in their quarterfinal on Sunday. Following 120 minutes, it took nine rounds of penalties before Panama eventually prevailed thanks to a decisive, superb save from LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaimie Penedo.
Prediction: While Mexico undoubtedly has more quality at their disposal than Panama, it would be difficult to have too much confidence in them avenging their 2013 exit when the two teams meet in Atlanta. Panama are an impressive team when in full flow and the experienced forward partnership of Blas Pérez and Luis Tejada have the quality to expose Mexico’s shaky backline as it did the United States’ in the group stage. With both teams having played 120 minutes on Sunday, there could well be plenty of fatigue on show, likely impacting on the quality of the spectacle. But the fact that Mexico has greater strength in depth and can call on an injection of quality from the bench like Jesús “Tecatito” Corona may prove decisive in prolonging Mexico’s unconvincing run all the way to the final.
Predicted score: Mexico over Panama, 1-0.
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
Date: Wednesday, July 22
Time: 9 p.m. EDT