Mexico’s World Cup hopes remain somehow intact after a night of extraordinary drama on the final night of Concacaf qualifying. Mexico failed to get the point it needed to be sure of securing a playoff place as it fell 2-1 to Costa Rica, but El Tri was done the biggest of favors by its fiercest rival, the United States, who beat Panama 3-2.

With Mexico trailing and toiling in San Jose, when Panama scored to go in front inside the final 10 minutes, it appeared that it would be heading into a playoff. Instead, the U.S. extraordinarily struck twice in injury time to keep Mexico alive. Victor Manuel Vucetich’s side will now face a two-legged playoff against New Zealand next month to prevent missing out on its first World Cup since 1990. If it does indeed make it to Brazil, it is hard to imagine a way in which it could have made its path any more arduous.

Following an incredible late win against Panama on Friday, many thought that Mexico had already stepped back from the brink. Instead, an even more perilous night was to await. Mexico lacked composure throughout the match and fell behind midway through the first half through Bryan Ruiz. Although Mexico equalized less than five minutes later through Oribe Peralta, the home side, which showed plenty of motivation despite already having qualified, went back in front through Alvaro Saborio just past the hour mark. With Mexico becoming increasingly ragged, it was going to be down to the U.S. to do it a favor and boy did its neighbors to the north come up big. 

Looking ahead to the tie with New Zealand, Victor Manuel Vucetich will have to do without both Javier Hernandez and Jorge Torres Nilo after they picked up their second yellow cards. But that will not be immediately concerning to a man who has had an extraordinary beginning to his tenure.

Despite the win over Panama, Mexico began the match incredibly nervously and could have found itself 2-0 in no time at all. First defender Giancarlo Gonzalez headed a very presentable chance over the bar, before the center-back pairing of Hugo Ayala and Rafael Marquez was badly caught out by Bryan Oviedo’s forward pass and were left relieved that Ruiz failed to make proper contact with his first-time shot.

In a thrilling first 45 minutes, there was soon plenty of action at the other end as Costa Rica’s defensive line was also crudely exposed. It was only an astonishing miss from Hernandez that prevented the visitors going in front. Peralta unselfishly squared to the Manchester United striker, but he made a complete mess of his shot and although the ball eventually ended up in the net it was only after the now offside Peralta had distracted the goalkeeper. Instead, in the 25th minute, it was Costa Rica who was the first to take advantage of its opponent’s haplessness at the back.

Ayala lacked conviction in his challenge with Christian Bolanos and Marquez was far too labored in reacting, while right-back Miguel Layun was turned too easily by Ruiz before the Fulham forward smashed an unstoppable strike past Guillermo Ochoa.

The visitors, though, continued to carry a threat at the other end and were back on level terms four minutes later. Hernandez wasted another chance when through on goal, this time as he failed to get round Keylor Navas. But the touch by the Costa Rica goalkeeper arrived at the feet of Hernandez’s strike partner and Peralta smashed a stunning shot in off the crossbar to beat the covering defender on the line.

Mexico should have gone into the break in front too, but Hernandez’s wretched form continued when he volleyed wide from just six yards out. It was to prove a pivotal miss as even Mexico’s attacking thrust was lost in the second half as with the away side looking increasingly jaded and lacking in ideas.

Few could claim to be surprised when Costa Rica went in front. Torres-Nilo failed to stop Cristian Gamboa’s cross from the right and Marquez’s positioning left a lot to be desired as the veteran allowed the ball to travel over his head and onto that of substitute Saborio, who made no mistake. It was only down to the reflexes of Ochoa that Saborio didn’t add a second headed goal minutes later.

Becoming ever more frantic in their play and conceding possession far too cheaply, Mexico were living on the edge. The excellent Bolanos came close to getting the goal his performance deserved when he dinked the ball over Ochoa but against the post after the best move of the match.

It was hard to see any way back for Mexico. And the Costa Rica fans were reveling in the score from Panama as Mexico stared seemingly powerless at a most ignominious of failures. Through none of their own doing on the night, instead El Tri lives to fight another day but can be under no illusions that things simply have to get better.