Raul Jimenez kept Mexico’s World Cup hopes alive in the most dramatic of circumstances with a sensational overhead kick to secure a most vital of victories of Panama at the Estadio Azteca. With four minutes remaining, El Tri looked set to waste yet another chance to get their qualifying campaign back on track and quite possibly this time have them served their last rites. A victory appeared on course when Oribe Peralta struck late in the first half. But Mexico once again displayed an extraordinary capacity to shoot themselves in the foot when Javier Hernandez missed a second-half penalty and then out of nowhere Panama equalized through Luis Tejada with nine minutes left on the clock.
Staring down the barrel of its fate being taken out of its own hands heading into the final round of the Hexagonal, there was to be a magical intervention. Just seconds after coming off the bench, 22-year-old Jimenez produced a moment that he is unlikely to eclipse no matter what future achievements his career has in store.
When a pass came into his feet on the edge of the box, the America striker’s first touch was woeful, sending the ball straight up over his head. Yet, it was that miss-control that allowed for what followed. He leapt up and met the ball perfectly with his right foot to send it soaring over his head and past the unmoved and disbelieving Panama goalkeeper.
Victor Manuel Vucetich, brought in to rescue Mexico’s ailing attempts to make it to Brazil, delivered the first part of the job. He will now lead his side into a final match in Costa Rica knowing that a draw will be enough to secure a playoff with New Zealand, regardless of what Panama does at home to the United States. There even remains the possibility of securing an automatic berth if Mexico wins and Honduras falls to defeat in Jamaica.
Once more it was a performance from Mexico that failed to come close to reaching the heights of which their players are capable. But this time there will be very few Mexicans who care as for the first time at the Azteca in this campaign El Tri was able to get the job done.
To be fair, there were far more encouraging signs on Vucetich’s debut than there had been under Jose Manuel de la Torres throughout 2013. The main difference was the much greater positivity shown by the side, particularly in the first half. Carlos Pena was pivotal in repeatedly breaking forward from midfield to support Hernandez and Peralta up front. The two full-backs on either side, while the recalled veteran Rafael Marquez offered another dimension with his passing range from the back. With the exception of Panama’s goal, the 34-year-old, who returned to captain the side, also showed a capacity to organize a team that has so often looked rudderless in recent times.
Pena’s positivity was pivotal to the opening goal after 40 minutes. Again the midfielder got to the edge of the opposition box and this time supplied Peralta, who exchanged passes with Hernandez for one of the few times in the contest, before taking down the looped return ball and finishing emphatically past Jaime Penedo. The eruption of relief all around the Azteca was palpable.
Just before the hour mark the lead should have been doubled. Javier Aquino was found in the box, but going away from goal there was no need for covering defender Harold Cummings to make a challenge. In truth, there was not much of a challenge and Aquino definitely went down softly, but Cummings putting his arm into his opponents’ back gave the referee a choice to make. Hernandez was given the chance to get a second goal to distill the nervous tension that still pervaded. Instead he struck a woefully soft penalty almost straight at Penedo.
Still, Mexico looked in control. Panama were continuing to offer nothing going forward. Surely nothing would go wrong this time? But with Julio Dely Valdes having brought on support for Blas Perez, Mexico’s worse fears were realized.
Mexico twice failed poorly to clear the ball as its defensive organization disintegrated and one substitute Gabriel Torres played it through for another, Tejada, to take it past Guillermo Ochoa and finish into the unguarded net. There looked no way back from this latest blow.
Then onto the pitch stepped Jimenez for his moment of destiny. It could and should be the pivotal moment of Mexico’s qualifying campaign and perhaps for the future of this undeniably talented generation of players. But first, the job must be completed on Tuesday.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.