Mexico books ticket to Russia 2018 after 'Chucky' seals win vs. Panama
MEXICO CITY -- Three quick thoughts from Mexico's 1-0 win over Panama, which sees El Tri secure their place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
1. Mexico books ticket to World Cup
With 10 goals scored, two conceded, five wins and two draws, Mexico is the fifth team to qualify for Russia 2018, joining Brazil, Japan, Iran and the host country.
El Tri's campaign has been almost perfect, with the team markedly improved on four years ago, when Mexico suffered at home against Panama and almost missed out on Brazil 2014. The frantic changes of manager, dropped points at home and problems with confidence are in the past.
El Tri has not very often been aesthetically pleasing in this qualifying campaign, but who was bothered about that four years ago? Instead, coach Juan Carlos Osorio has drilled his team in showing steel, being difficult to beat and letting its superior individual talent shine through. It hasn't always been to the taste of the fans, but it has worked and qualifying was the Colombian manager's number one mission.
The game against Panama in Estadio Azteca on Friday was a prime example of how tricky these games can be. Mexico can play better, everyone knows it. But when a team comes to sit back and hit on the break, it isn't easy, even if some fans still expect three- or four-goal victories. The United States has found out this qualifying campaign what Mexico did in the last one.
It was difficult against a Panama side playing a 4-4-2 formation, but sitting very deep. Guillermo Ochoa had to make three quality second-half saves. And Los Canaleros should've equalized on the final whistle.
But Osorio's 3-4-3 formation meant Mexico dominated the majority of the match. More creativity will be required moving forward, and there is plenty still to do to arrive in Russia next summer with a genuine chance of reaching a quarter or even semi final.
That can all wait. Mexico's players celebrated on the pitch at the final whistle. They deserve it. This qualifying campaign is on course to be El Tri's best for many, many years.
2. Super-sub 'Chucky' rescues Mexico
Within one minute of entering the field in the 51st minute, Hirving "Chucky" Lozano had what looked like a strong claim for a penalty turned down. One minute later, "Chucky" had the ball in the net and El Tri on the path to World Cup qualification.
It was a surprise when Lozano's name wasn't in the starting XI for Mexico, but when the game is tight and a compact team like Panama is tiring, it isn't difficult to see why Osorio chose to hold him for the later stages.
If there has been one player who has blossomed under Osorio, it's Lozano and his rise from promising Liga MX winger to a full international playing in Europe shows no sign of leveling off. Indeed, while important Mexico players like Hector Herrera and Miguel Layun have struggled to get minutes so far at their clubs this season, Lozano has three goals in his first three games for PSV in the Eredivisie.
It surely won't be long before the 22-year-old is starting all the biggest games for El Tri.
While this was an assured, if not brilliant, performance from Mexico, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona also deserves a mention. It was the Porto player's twisting and turning down the left and the perfect cross that gave Lozano the chance to be Friday night's hero. And he looked the most likely Mexican player in the first half to make something happen against a difficult Panama team.
3. Azteca's shortcomings
There were little more than 37,000 inside Estadio Azteca on Friday evening to see Mexico qualify for the World Cup in what should've been a celebration. Tickets were being sold at two for the price of one, but it didn't help sales much -- although heavy rain preceding the match and in the days before, causing traffic chaos in Mexico City -- didn't help.
Talk about the stadium, penciled in to host games at a third World Cup in 2026, has been rife in the past year in Mexico.
Its altitude is no longer helpful to the home side because the majority of Mexico's squad -- when it is at full strength -- is based in Europe. Indeed, El Tri once again prepared about an hour's drive outside the city in Cuernavaca, at a lower altitude.
There were those all too common nervous whistles and even boos when Mexico went into the break at 0-0.
Then there was that goalkeeper chant. The Mexican federation launched a massive campaign to ask fans to shout "Mexico" at each goal kick. It even stated that it would donate the amount in fines it has received from FIFA into education for Mexican children. But even though the public address system urged spectators to shout "Mexico," the other chant, which FIFA has deemed homophobic, could clearly be heard. El Tri should expect another fine.
Mexico will have one home qualifying game left in October against Trinidad and Tobago. With the World Cup ticket in the bag, it is high time El Tri played outside of Mexico City, with Monterrey the most obvious choice.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.