Five months after overseeing Mexico’s worst ever defeat in a major tournament, Juan Carlos Osorio finally has some much-needed breathing room. Although the Colombian survived the 7-0 loss to Chile in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario, he was a man under intense pressure, seemingly one more bad result away from unemployment.
That result may have been expected to come last Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, a venue where Mexico had lost 2-0 to its greatest rival, the United States, on its last four visits. Instead, Rafa Márquez, the 37-year-old who had played in all four of those losses, headed a corner into the net in the 89th minute to give Mexico a 2-1 win and end the streak of “dos a cero.”
While the goal was dramatically late, there was nothing fortunate about the result. And both the outcome and performance should provide the perfect boost for Osorio and his team as they prepare to travel to Panama in its second game of the final round of World Cup qualifying, known as the Hexagonal.
Given the events of the summer, a repeat of Mexico’s arduous and almost disastrous attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup might have been expected. Then, Mexico needed four different coaches and a dramatic favor from the U.S. just to make it into a playoff. But now Mexico already has a first win under its belt, something it took the team until its fourth match to achieve in the last Hexagonal.
Still, Mexico will be loathed to take anything for granted ahead of its second match this time around. A trip to Panama City is a tricky enough proposition these days, but the visit of Mexico will ensure that motivation is sky high for the host team. It was, after all, Panama that was beaten out by Mexico four years ago to lose its chance to qualify for a World Cup for the first time.
It was not only the incredible final round of matches, when Panama suffered a late collapse at home against the U.S., which left painful wounds. Four days earlier, Panama had been undone by a spectacular last-gasp effort from Raúl Jiménez to give Mexico the win at the Estadio Azteca.
As if that weren’t enough to inspire the team on Tuesday evening, Panama also had every reason to feel aggrieved by events when the two teams met in the semifinals of the Gold Cup in 2015. A series of controversial refereeing decisions that went against Panama culminated in a late penalty that helped Mexico take the game into extra time and ultimately prevail.
Still, as painful as those recent encounters with Mexico are, they also provide ample evidence that Panama is a team on the rise in Concacaf. It is a perception the Central American side has furthered already in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
On Friday, Panama went to Honduras, a team that has qualified for the last two World Cups, and secured a 1-0 win thanks to a first-half goal from Fidel Escobar. It sets Panama up to be at least the fourth best team in Concacaf -- behind Mexico, the U.S. and Costa Rica -- which would be enough for a playoff berth. At the Azteca on Tuesday, though, Panama may be setting its sights higher still.
The chances of Hernán Gómez’s side getting a positive result have been enhanced by Mexico being without three players from its win over the U.S.
Perhaps most damagingly, Andrés Guardado is out with a hamstring injury, but also absent will be defender Carlos Salcedo after getting sent off late in Columbus and Carlos Vela, who has departed the squad to attend the birth of his son.
Prediction: Panama has lost just two of its last 14 home matches in World Cup qualifying and held Mexico to a goalless draw when the sides met in 2013. While Mexico came out on top in a friendly in the U.S. last month, the recent meetings between the teams have been closely fought affairs. That should be the case again on Tuesday, particularly with Mexico’s absentees. A draw may ultimately not be too disappointing a result for either side.
Predicted Score: Panama 1-1 Mexico
Kickoff Time: 9:05 p.m. EST