Mexico defeated arch-rivals USA 2-1 in a crucial 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier, powered by punishing strikes from Israel Castro and super-sub Miguel Sabah. The result moves El Tri into third place, for several hours at least, among the six North, Central American and Caribbean nations still battling for the three regional berths at football's global showpiece next summer, bolstering Mexico's hopes of qualifying for their fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup.
The victory, earned under the usual raucous conditions of Mexico City's fabled Estadio Azteca, means Los Tricolores extend their near-perfect record against the USA to 23-1-0 on Mexican soil and they now trail today's opponents by just one point in the qualification standings. The Stars and Stripes, who impressed the world by reaching the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa in June, were keen to make amends after their more recent 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Mexico in last month's CONCACAF Gold Cup final in New Jersey, but it was not to be.
Emotions ran hot in this the sixth of ten qualifying matches for South Africa 2010, as the much-anticipated showdown began with each side displaying signs of nervousness which are part and parcel of any match between these rivals, especially those played in Mexico City. In a tense match that marked the coaching debut for Bob Bradley at the Azteca, Mexico exhibited fine form as they repeatedly probed the US defence for a weakness, perhaps emboldened by the return of several foreign-based talents not in attendance at last month's Gold Cup.
Davies slots home
The rainy season kept conditions relatively smog-free and cool, and early on it was the sea of green shirts in the stands that were first forced to confront an unpleasant reality. Landon Donovan played a fine through ball in the ninth minute to an on-rushing Charlie Davies who outpaced his marker and expertly slotted home to the far post, just outside of Guillermo ‘Memo' Ochoa's reach. But it was a rare advance from USA who, though maintaining a compact back-line, did not appear content to settle for mere counter-attacks. Mexico was indeed more effective in putting together pin-point passes as they attempted to penetrate the perimeter of the visitor's penalty area.
In the 16th minute, Cauhtemoc Blanco got on the end of a series of passes, but directed his shot directly at Tim Howard, only for the home side to equalise just minutes later. Having been given plenty of space and time by the US defence, Israel Castro struck a beautiful bullet from 25 yards that smacked the underside of the post and bounced to the floor of the goal. Mexico continued to play smartly, showing good patience in the course of building a series of attacks. Five minutes before the interval, USA had a free-kick from 45 yards out, but were unable to capitalise, as their inability to get the ball to their forward line continued to hamper their efforts.
After the break, USA began to look more capable of creating their own opportunities in Mexico's half, but the home side quickly took control of the proceedings once more. After Mexico sent a hard volley over the US net, Gerardo Torrado sent a seeking ball across the penalty area, but to no avail. Ten minutes into the half, veteran Blanco nearly got his chance from the top of USA's box just before departing the match.
Mexico continued to press as Giovani dos Santos found himself alone at the back post. He drilled his shot smartly, but Howard was able to knock it away. In the 66th minute, Dos Santos escaped Benny Feilhaber and Landon Donovan, but could produce nothing further. Donovan returned the favour a minute later after being turned loose by substitute Stuart Holden, but was turned away as well. Holden was again in the mix, sending a fine ball into the box that just eluded a diving Davies at point-blank range. Moments later, Davies was released on a dangerous solo run at the Mexico goal, but was adjudged to be offside.
We found it very difficult to settle on the field in the opening minutes and the United States took advantage. Then, we became calmer, building our offensive play and our goals finally came.
Nine minutes from full time came the game's decisive moment, as substitute Miguel Sabah struck a hard volley into the top of the net after a great penetrating run from Efraín Juárez had drawn two defenders. In their last attempt with time running down, Donovan swung in a corner-kick, but had it punched away by Ochoa.
Reversal of fortune
Prior to this edition of the clasico, Mexico sat precariously in fourth position in the qualifying standings, due to abominable away form that produced losses against Honduras and El Salvador, as well as the US. In contrast, Mexico are also the side that can boast handing Costa Rica their sole loss to date in hexagonal play, reflecting an inconsistency that has plagued El Tri's South Africa 2010 qualification bid.
In addition to a welcome move closer to the table leaders, the victory also enabled Los Tricolores to reverse the 2-0 defeat by the US in February at the home of the 2008 Major League Soccer champion Columbus Crew. And Mexico still retain the edge in the overall series between these two CONCACAF sides, having prevailed in more than half of their nearly five dozen encounters with the US since 1934.
The US surely depart the still-reverberating Azteca frustrated by their inability to play at the same level as they did against Egypt and Spain at South Africa 2009. With the win, Javier Aguirre's side managed to snap USA goalkeeper Tim Howard's unbeaten record against El Tri, while improving their own record in hexagonal play to 3-0-3, but Mexico's day in the sun will soon need to give way to more pressing matters, as an away date with top-of-the-table Costa Rica awaits on 5 September.
Bradley's charges will have slightly more time to gather their thoughts, as they will not face the Ticos until 14 October and instead are set to square off against currently fifth-placed El Salvador on 5 September in Sandy, Utah, as hexagonal intrigue rolls on.