In the torrential rain in Natal, Mexico overcame a storm of bad officiating to get their World Cup campaign off to a vital winning start.
Missed chances but chiefly a continued theme of woeful officiating in this World Cup had threatened to leave Mexico drenched and frustrated against Cameroon in their opening game of Group A. As the rain continued to pour down in the north eastern city of Brazil, twice Giovani Dos Santos had perfectly good goals ruled out for offside in the opening half. Meanwhile Oribe Peralta had missed a gilt-edged chance in the second. A draw would have left Mexico with a major uphill struggle to qualify for the last 16 for the sixth successive World Cup, with games against hosts and favorites Brazil and an impressive-looking Croatia side to come.
Instead, with 30 minutes remaining, Peralta, his country’s top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals, struck, sliding home a rebound after Cameroon goalkeeper Charles Itandje had initially denied a fitting end to a fine Mexico move. It was the least that Mexico deserved.
Having endured a torrid time simply getting to the World Cup, Mexico did plenty to suggest that they could make the most of the numerous reprieves that allowed them to make their way to Brazil. Miguel Herrera’s fluid, forward-thinking team largely consigned the lethargic displays in qualifying to memory. It must be said, however, that they were given a significant helping hand by a Cameroon side that showed all-too little ambition. After the problems simply getting the players to fly to Brazil after a dispute about bonuses, all the signs are that Cameroon’s stay will be a short one.
Cameroon coach Volker Finke’s ultra-defensive tactics, with a line of five midfielders closely in front of the back four, played into their opponent’s hands. It allowed Mexico to dictate play high up the pitch, with veteran Rafa Marquez running the show in the knowledge that there was little threat on the break.
The only thing missing in the opening half were the goals. For that Mexico had the officials to lament. In the 11th minute, Hector Herrera crossed from the right and Dos Santos guided a volley home from eight yards only for celebrations to be quickly halted by the raising of an assistant’s flag, despite Dos Santos having been clearly level with the last defender.
There was further frustration for Mexico and Dos Santos on the half-hour mark. From a corner this time, he finished from close range at the far post, but was again adjudged offside despite the only touch coming off a Cameroonian head.
In between, Cameroon mounted a brief spell of pressure and showed up some of the vulnerabilities in this Mexico side. First Benoit Assou-Ekotto exposed the lack of pace of veteran defender Francisco Rodriguez moving out wide and crossed low for the otherwise anonymous Samuel Eto’o, who should have done better than shot against the outside of the post. Mexico were later caught out from a corner, when Hector Moreno was lucky to avoid conceding a penalty for hauling down Eric Maxim Choupou-Moting. Still, if Mexico had got lucky there, their misfortune returned to end a bizarre half. Aurelien Chedjou stretched his leg across Dos Santos in the box and failed to reach the ball, but referee Wilmar Roldan was unmoved.
Mexico’s dominance continued in the second half. While Marquez was orchestrating things, Dos Santos was providing the kind of influential touches of quality to link midfield and attack that have been absent from his performances for Mexico of late. Marquez and Dos Santos combined to set up Peralta for Mexico’s clearest chance yet of the contest, but the striker’ shot was straight at the legs of Itandje in the Cameroon goal.
To Mexico’s huge relief and the explosive joy of Herrera on the sidelines, the goal finally arrived. Herrera, impressive in a well-balanced midfield, was the creator with a clever move past a defender and an equally fine ball through. Though Dos Santos was denied, Peralta was on hand and Mexico had its lead.
Cameroon were finally forced out of their shell, but had little to offer. A late header from Benjamin Moukandjo’s header caused gasps but Ochoa’s save was more spectacular than the threat suggested. Only an even later missed chance from substitute Javier Hernandez stopped it from being a perfect ending to a positive start for El Tri.