Mexico had a surprisingly difficult time, but secured three big points and a giant step toward the Confederations Cup knockout stage with a 2-1 victory over New Zealand in Sochi, Russia on Wednesday.
A vastly changed El Tri lineup featured eight changes, and New Zealand took advantage of some sloppy, disjointed play to take the lead through Chris Wood just before halftime.
Raul Jimenez and Oribe Peralta scored the equalizing and go-ahead goals, respectively, in the second half, and winger Javier Aquino was an all-around standout for Mexico, which will go through to the knockout stage with a win or draw against host Russia in Saturday's group finale–for which Mexico will have plenty of fresh, first-choice legs.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
Osorio's rotation risk, ultimately, pays off
Juan Carlos Osorio made eight changes to his starting lineup, and it was a risk against an inferior opponent that was ultimately rewarded, but not without some serious tension. Only Raul Jimenez, Carlos Salcedo and Diego Reyes have started both matches in Russia, and Osorio, as he tends to do, has plenty questioning his methods.
On one hand, it's nice to have that much depth to feel confident turning to in a tournament setting. On the other, it disrupts continuity, places added responsibility and accountability on more players and, in some cases, puts players in less comfortable positions on the field. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, one of the eight starters against Portugal who sat against New Zealand, claimed Mexico's players have embraced his philosophy in an extensive interview with SI.com's Grant Wahl, and it appears that it was just enough to get Mexico to the three points on Wednesday.
It's not as if Mexico was hit with a rash of yellow cards in the opener and Osorio was guarding against suspensions. Only Andres Guardado was cautioned in the 2-2 draw. And when Salcedo went down injured in the first half and Osorio had to burn a sub, it limited what he was able to do in the second half. He brought Hector Herrera on at halftime to settle his central midfield–but then had to take off Salcedo's replacement, Hector Moreno, in the second half, bringing on the ageless Rafa Marquez (who, yes, was part of Mexico's 1999 Confederations Cup-winning team).
Fortunately for Osorio, Aquino was sensational on the left wing, Jimenez turned in a fantastic equalizer and Peralta continued to haunt New Zealand, adding to the four goals he scored in the intercontinental playoff between the two nations for a place in the 2014 World Cup.
Osorio and Mexico earned all three points, but they came the hard way, and El Tri's defensive lapses, on which New Zealand wasn't fully able to capitalize, will be punished by a more clinical team (say, oh, I don't know, Chile?) in the same instances down the line in the competition. Mexico is in good shape to go through, but it should also be on notice that it has to be much better to contend for the trophy.
Hiccups in the implementation of VAR
Osorio isn't the only one experimenting at the Confederations Cup.
FIFA's introduction of Video Assistant Referees to official competition has drawn the ire, confusion and consternation of many. In theory, it's great. Make sure the correct calls are made in the instances of goals, penalty kicks and red cards. Some of the early uses of VAR have been, in one writer's opinion, unfairly criticized. They ultimately got calls right and didn't really interfere with the match. Sure, they may have nullified or interrupted goal celebrations. But if the ultimate goal is getting calls correct, it succeeded.
That being said, Wednesday's use in the dying moments was a bit outrageous. It started when Herrera and Ryan Thomas got into it after Michael Boxall's jersey was yanked from behind. Both teams entered a slappers-only confrontation and referee Bakary Gassama went to the video tape to see about any retroactive cards. But first it went to the replay booth. Then Gassama elected to watch the tape himself. Then he took his time to issue three yellow cards. All in stoppage time of a game in which New Zealand trailed by one and had a chance to pull even on a free kick. The review completely disrupted the rhythm of the moment and shouldn't have been entirely necessary. Much like instant replay has done for referees in the NFL, VAR will allow for referees to call matches in a different way, knowing the video evidence is available as a back-up plan. In many instances, VAR is and will be a good thing for the sport. This was not one of them.
Howard Webb recently discussed the implementation of VAR and its benefits with the Planet Fútbol Podcast, but it hasn't been an entirely smooth process.
Props to the Mexican federation
THAT chant at the opposing goalkeeper, which continues to draw warnings, fines and controversy, remains at the forefront of every Mexico national team game, but the Mexican federation made another aggressive plea on the eve of the match for fans to let it go.
While many–including Osorio–maintain that the meaning of said word is lost in translation and does not represent what most perceive it to and that it is not an offensive or anti-gay sentiment, it's quite clear that it should have no place in the game, and Mexico's federation is putting clout behind kicking it out.
Fans in Sochi took heed of Mexico's plea and acted accordingly. They applauded during New Zealand kicks, they remained silent and they chanted "Mexico!" instead in a refreshing deviation from the norm. The infamous "P word" was nowhere to be heard. (The "MF" word, however, was there for all to hear and see after Osorio unleashed a tantrum on New Zealand manager Anthony Hudson following a controversial moment in the first half.)
It's one game, thousands of miles from Mexico, and there's no guarantee that fans will universally accept abolishing the chant from Mexico games. Wednesday was a step in the right direction, though, and it's a testament to the commitment of Mexico's federation and El Tri fans on site for carrying out the change.