Jesus "Tecatito" Corona's moment of magic rescued Mexico Monday, salvaging a 1-1 draw with Venezuela and ensuring El Tri finished atop Group C at Copa America.
Mexico entered Monday's match in Houston needing just a draw with the tournament Cinderella to win the group and avoid a likely date with Argentina in the quarterfinals. That quest didn't start off very successfully.
Fielding a starting lineup with nine changes from the previous match, Mexico conceded in the 10th minute, with Jose Manuel Velazquez turning in a spectacular scissor kick volley off a free kick to give Venezuela the lead. It marked the first time Mexico has trailed in a match since September, and it was just the second goal conceded by Mexico in 10 games under manager Juan Carlos Osorio.
Venezuela, the longshot in the group, was in line to finish first, until Corona delivered a slaloming run through six defenders and a confident finish to level the score and put Mexico back in position to win the group and avoid Messi & Co.
It took a save from Mexico's goalkeeper, also a Jesus Corona, late on to preserve the result and ensure Mexico is likely to meet either Chile or Panama in the quarterfinals. Venezuela, meanwhile, will meet Argentina, presuming it does not endure a massive collapse against Bolivia in its group finale on Tuesday night.
Here are three thoughts on another wild development at Copa America:
Tecatito, the hero
When you think of one-name Mexico superstars these days, the list usually starts and finishes with "Chicharito," but Tecatito has carved out his own place in the top tier of players in this region, and he further entrenched himself there Monday night. He was always looking like Mexico's most likely goal threat even before his takeover moment. Just before he sliced through the Vinotinto defense he had another great effort go just wide of the post, and with Chicharito not on until the final 20 or so minutes, the onus certainly appeared to be on Corona (who didn't start either–he was an early injury sub for Javier Aquino) to make things happen.
As for why Mexico was even in this position to begin with, that's on its manager.
You can take Juan Carlos Osorio out of Colombia, but you can't take the Colombia out of Juan Carlos Osorio, so it seems. After watching Colombia make wholesale changes in its group finale only to pay the price with a loss to Costa Rica (well, at the time it seemed like a steep price; a second-place finish and quarterfinal date with Peru on a thinner side of the bracket isn't terrible at all. More on that below.), Osorio evidently figured, "Why not? What's the worst that could happen?" Well, the worst was an early concession and Mexico nearly blowing its chance at a place in the express lane to the final.
It's not like Mexico threw out a team of scrubs. Osorio has a deep squad at his disposal, and with a quarterfinal later this week, he likely wanted to steal some rest for his players against an opponent that its B team should beat. And it's not like Venezuela was trotting out a consistent XI either, making six changes of its own and omitting West Brom striker Salomon Rondon. There's a big difference between the two, though.
Venezuela was playing with nothing to lose, knowing its worst-case scenario is finishing second, a place it was never supposed to be. For Mexico, the group favorite and de facto home side, there's a big drop-off between facing Argentina and facing either Chile or Panama early in the knockout stage.
Fortunately for Osorio, Corona came to his and Mexico's rescue, and instead of going into a brutal quarterfinal matchup with some confidence lost, Mexico will be favored and on a roll. Sometimes it all ends up working out, but it certainly wasn't the easy way.
Mexico fans: STOP
The pro-Mexico crowd at NRG Stadium respectfully observed a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando, in which 49 people were murdered at a nightclub. Minutes later, the same fans were chanting a word that denigrates the very people to whom they were supposedly honoring.
The chant, which is targeted at opposing goalkeepers and has been an ongoing issue for years, is deplorable, disrespectful, homophobic, disparaging, tone deaf and despicable. It doesn't matter how long it's been going on. There's no amount of "tradition" that justifies offending and discriminating against a slice of humanity.
To its credit, Mexico has started a "Ya párale" campaign that literally means "Stop it," and fan groups, such as the U.S.-based Pancho Villa's Army, have tried to eradicate the word from matchday. The message obviously isn't getting across to everybody.
UEFA has threatened England and Russia with expulsion from Euro 2016 if its fans don't get in line and stop with the abhorrent violence in France. FIFA has already fined the Mexican federation for its fans' chant, but it's clearly not making a dent. If the fans aren't going to get a clue and stop on their own, then it's on CONCACAF or other authorities to threaten expulsion from competitions, point reductions or some other competitive measure that will resonate. It's sick and unfortunate that it has to come to that, but that's just where we are, apparently.
Bracket balance preserved
Had Venezuela held on, one side of the bracket–barring an epic Argentina collapse against Bolivia– would've had USA, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina. The other: Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and either Chile or Panama. With Brazil eliminated and the three Pot 1 teams all on one half of the knockout bracket, tournament organizers wouldn't have been thrilled with the imbalance as it relates to the final matchup.
That said, Mexico now heads to the side with Peru, Colombia and either Chile or Panama, while Argentina-Venezuela gets paired with Ecuador-USA. It all sets up for what should be a thrilling road to MetLife Stadium on June 26.
Venezuela's Velazquez had what most assumed would be the goal of the night in the 10th minute. Off a free kick, he peeled off his defender and created space for himself to receive the second ball. He executed a perfect side volley to put the Vinotinto on top and stun the pro-Mexico crowd:
Venezuela appeared to catch a break in the 38th minute, when center back Wilker Angel had a corner kick deflect off his raised arm in the penalty area while he tried to clear it. No call was made, though, despite Mexico shouts for a penalty.
Mexico pushed for an equalizer and thought it had one for sure with about 15 minutes to go. But Dani Hernandez, the backup goalkeeper, made an audacious double save off a Mexico set piece to keep El Tri off the board:
That only delayed the inevitable, though it took something spectacular for it to happen.
Mexico is now unbeaten in 22 matches, including all 10 of its games under Osorio (9-0-1).