Both Mexico and Venezuela may have already clinched their places in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario, but there remains plenty resting on the sides’ final group match in Houston on Monday. Both teams have taken maximum points from their first two matches and will now battle it out for top spot in Group C, an honor that is almost certain to carry with it a significant reward.
The team that comes off second best at NRG Stadium will take on the winner of Group D, which, barring a freak set of results in the final round of fixtures, will be tournament favorites Argentina. The upper hand is firmly with Mexico, with its advantage in goal differential meaning it requires only a draw. For Venezuela, only a win will do.
Mexico has reason for confidence, too. With wins over Uruguay and Jamaica this far in the Copa America, El Tri has extended its winning run to 11 matches and its undefeated streak to 21. Nine of those results have come under current coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who now has a chance to make it a perfect 10 to start his reign.
However, a 2-0 victory over Jamaica last time out was not as plain sailing as the scoreline might suggest. After Javier “Chicharito” Hernández gave his side an early lead with a fine header, El Tri allowed Jamaica a number of chances, particularly on the counter attack, to get back into the game. It was only after substitute Oribe Peralta added a second goal nine minutes from time that Mexico gained any degree of security against a Jamaica team that was beaten 1-0 by Venezuela in its opening match.
Having also conceded an equalizer against Uruguay before coming back to win the game with two late goals, Mexico’s players have spoken in the buildup to the clash with Venezuela about the need to cutout sloppy mistakes.
"We should have a bit more calm," Porto winger Jesús “Tecatito” Corona said at a press conference. "Sometimes we're our own worst enemy because we get exasperated. We've got to keep playing with this force, this personality. There were 10 minutes where we came out playing well, after that we didn't. We fell into these moments of impatience, but we've got to keep showing character and getting the ball.”
Mexico will, though, be boosted for its next encounter by the return from suspension of Andrés Guardado. And it has also never lost against Venezuela in all 10 matches played between the countries, winning eight of them.
Still, Venezuela has reason to enter Monday’s matchup on a high. Despite having made a terrible start to World Cup qualifying, taking just one point from six matches to all-but end its hopes of making it to Russia in 2018, Venezuela has excelled so far at the Copa America. With 1-0 victories over Jamaica and then most impressively Uruguay, a country that was for a long time more associated with its exploits at baseball has already secured progress to the last eight of the competition for just the third time.
That achievement represents a major early boost for coach Rafael Dudamel, who only took over in April following the team’s poor start to World Cup qualifying.
“Today we showed the Rocky we have inside,” Dudamel, a former goalkeeper with the national side, said after the win over Uruguay. “That fighter who never gives up, who may go down, but gets up again.”
Prediction: Dudamel has certainly made his team more defensively solid since taking charge, keeping three clean sheets in five matches. And with West Brom’s Salmon Rondon leading the line, Venezuela possess real presence up front. Mexico will certainly have to be switched onto Venezuela’s threat on the counter attack and aerial balls into the box. And this is a match where Osorio must look to iron out some of the kinks his side displayed against Jamaica before tougher challenges arrive in the knockout phase. For now, Mexico should have enough attacking ability to get through Venezuela’s stubborn defense.
Predicted Score: Mexico 1-0 Venezuela
Kickoff Time: 8 p.m. EDT