FOX Soccer Exclusive
Jimenez rescues Mexico from oblivion
Mexico plunged into despair as the final whistle approached with the scoreboard showing 1-1 in this do-or-die encounter with Panama. Another stalemate at the Estadio Azteca beckoned, a result that would leave El Tri clinging to its World Cup life.
Salvation arrived in miraculous fashion five minutes from time to transform the apprehension and the fear into unbridled joy. It came in the form of a stunning bicycle kick from Raul Jiménez, a gift from the heavens to lift Mexico to a precious 2-1 victory.
Jiménez's goal -- created by a ragged touch, an audacious jump into the air to rectify it and a picture-perfect swipe through the air to thump home from the edge of the penalty area -- pulled Mexico three points clear of Panama with one match left to play in the Hexagonal. A draw at Costa Rica will guarantee fourth place in the Hex and a berth in the World Cup playoff against New Zealand next month, while a victory and some help from Jamaica could even book a direct place to Brazil.
A Honduran collapse appears unlikely at the moment, but no scenario feels unattainable for Mexico in the wake of Jiménez's stunning winner. El Tri just about deserved its first home victory of the Hexagonal to mark its improvement in Victor Manuel Vucetich's first match in charge, but it required drastic measures in the late stages to claim it after Javier "Chicharito" Hernández missed from the spot with a chance to double the lead after halftime and Luis Tejada set up that grandstand finish with his equalizer.
At the outset, it did not appear Mexico would require dramatic salvage efforts to grasp the desired victory. Vucetich's imprint on the side emerged as soon as he submitted the teamsheet. His 4-4-2 setup provided the structure missing in the waning stages of José Manuel de la Torre's reign and supplied the necessary foundation for Mexico to push numbers forward prudently. Jesus Zavala dropped into defense to allow Rafa Marquez to distribute and permit Miguel Layún and Jorge Torres Nilo to surge up the flanks to provide width.
By including two ambitious fullbacks and reinforcing the shape accordingly, Vucetich freed his team to create space and foster movement with its copious share of possession. Panama retreated into its own half and sank into its 4-5-1 setup as if to dare El Tri to show it could find success after failing in its previous four attempts at Estadio Azteca.
This night did not follow the same pattern because Mexico applied the necessary energy, relied on the genuine width created by Layún and Torres Nilo to mine spaces through the middle and presented problems from the opening whistle. Carlos Peña and Giovani dos Santos both mustered half-chances inside the opening 10 minutes to signal Mexico's improvement and sound the warning to a Panamanian side willing to absorb pressure to its own detriment.
Mexico conjured the movement required to place Panama under severe duress as the first half progresses. Dos Santos and Javier Aquino switched flanks often to function as inverted wide players and urge Layún and Torres Nilo to operate near the touchline. Pena surged into the attacking third to provide the often missing late runner from central midfield. Those forays created a fine buildup ultimately wasted by Aquino shortly after the half hour and eventually prompted the opener five minutes before halftime.
Peña stepped into the attacking third to collect a poor clearance and stung his pass right into Peralta's feet. Peralta corralled the feed deftly and played a quick one-two with Hernández to open up a yard of space inside the penalty area. Peralta then lashed home from close range to pull Mexico in front and relieve some of the palpable tension in Estadio Azteca.
Hernández restored the nervousness shortly before the hour mark when he spurned an opportunity to double the lead. Aquino drew a rather fortunate penalty -- particularly in light of the denied shout for Panama moments earlier -- when he tumbled inside the area. Hernández assumed his usual duties from 12 yards without displaying the necessary conviction. Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo subsequently saved Hernández's tame effort with a routine dive to his left to peg El Tri back.
Penedo's intervention inspired a modest Panamanian revival and ratcheted up the tension within the crowd at the Azteca. This night never loomed as a particularly comfortable one in the wake of the troubles during this Hexagonal. The miss by Chicharito played to those pervasive fears that somehow, someway El Tri would find a way to squander this advantage.
Tejada validated those crippling concerns nine minutes from time when he drew Panama level. Hugo Ayala failed to head clear under pressure and prompted a quick Panamanian move to exploit the stretched back line. Tejada dashed into the space, kept himself onside with Torres Nilo stranded behind the rest of the Mexico rearguard and meandered around the restored Guillermo Ochoa to roll home.
Mexico feared for the worst at that stage, but the best was yet to come. Jiménez dispelled the doubt and settled the night with a goal worthy of winning any game. It served its desired function when the final whistle sounded, delivering Mexico from likely doom and providing the entire country with hope that this victory will eventually lead to a place in Brazil next year.