Mexican players saluted a joyous -- and relieved -- crowd after their victory over Panama. (Christian Palma/AP)
Raul Jimenez etched himself into Mexican soccer lore on Friday night, as his bicycle kick golazo in the 85th minute gave Mexico a crucial 2-1 win over Panama, boosting the once-fragile World Cup hopes for El Tri. Here are my three thoughts on a tense match at Estadio Azteca:
1. A change will do you good. Thrust into about as high-pressure a situation as possible in his first game as Mexico coach, Victor Manuel Vucetich certainly wasn't shy about bringing changes to his squad. In all, El Tri started eight players that didn't start in the team's last qualifier (a 2-0 loss to the United States). Only one of that group of eight saw any time against the Americans. That was Oribe Peralta, scorer of El Tri's first goal against Panama tonight.
The other seven changes included a complete overhaul of the backline (Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and defenders Hugo Ayala, Rafael Márquez, Miguel Layun, and Jorge Torres) as well as midfielders Javier Aquino and Carlos Peña. The adjustments worked. The Mexicans were solid defensively, as Panama's only goal came on their lone clear-cut chance of the game -- a knifing run through the heart of the defense by Luis Tejada, who applied an expert finish. Aquino and Peña brought energy and creativity to the midfield, and of course Peralta sent them on their way to victory with the opening strike.
And then there's substitute Raul Jimenez, who hadn't seen any time in a qualifier for El Tri since late June. He scored the winning goal in just about the most stunning way possible, a self-assisted bicycle kick from the top of the box that beat Panamanian goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and sent the Azteca into wild celebrations. Seriously, look at this goal.
And here it is again in video form, via ESPN. Half of Azteca can't even believe what happened. The commentator literally chokes in the middle of narrating the play. All-around gold.
Mexico made one more non-personnel-related change: the team changed jerseys, to a vaguely lightning-inspired design that they will reportedly wear in the World Cup should they make it. Maybe that helped, too.
2. Mexico needed this. Stating the obvious? Perhaps. But as crucial as getting the three points was, this win was about more than that. Mexico has gone though a qualifying struggle unseen for 30 years, and a loss to Honduras and scoreless draws with the United States and Costa Rica at home effectively dented the mythology behind their intimidating home field advantage at Azteca Stadium. On the surface, a win over Panama doesn't completely reverse that. But the magical manner in which the victory was achieved will give new hope to an El Tri team and fanbase that has been terribly short of it lately.
3. It's going to take a miracle for Panama to reach their first World Cup. What could be lost in all the commotion of Mexico's dramatic victory is the beginning of the end of one of CONCACAF's great stories from the past couple years. In the midst of a historic run, Panama at one point looked to have a solid grip on a World Cup spot, which would have been a fantastic story for the tiny nation of just over 3 million. But results, especially a 0-0 draw with Hexagonal minnows Jamaica in September, were their undoing in the end. Plucky underdogs throughout this qualification process, Panama had a solid gameplan against Mexico and executed it well through much of the match. Penedo's save of Javier Hernandez's penalty kick gave the team renewed verve, and Tejada's goal made stealing a point a very real possibility. Then Jimenez's moment of magic happened.
As it is, the Panamanians must win their final qualification match on Tuesday at home against the United States (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on BeIn Sport), and also hope that Mexico loses to an already-qualified Costa Rica in San José. The combination of those two results isn't entirely out of the question, but with Mexico's newfound momentum and Klinsmann's serious approach to the last U.S. qualifiers, it certainly won't be easy.