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 By Tom Marshall

Mexico reach Gold Cup final but Panama furious after penalty call

ATLANTA -- It is a bizarre situation when a team reaches the final of a major tournament in its region and the reaction is almost totally negative. Yet somehow Mexico has managed just that at this Gold Cup.

Wednesday's 2-1 victory over Panama in the semifinal was completely overshadowed by American referee Mark Geiger's awarding an 88th-minute penalty to Mexico, which Andres Guardado finished to take the game to extra time against 10-man Panama. From there, another penalty kick from Guardado at the end of the first half of extra time sealed Mexico's passage to the final.

It's not pleasant to mention, but there is a conspiracy theory doing the rounds that officials are helping Mexico reach the final. Panama coach Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez was asked numerous times about it in his news conference, and Los Canaleros' players scrawled "CONCACAF, thieves" on a banner in the changing room after the game.

El Tri were awarded a penalty in injury time in the second half of extra time in the quarterfinal against Costa Rica on Sunday and, as the skeptics suggest, given another helping hand in the semifinal too.

Both decisions have caused widespread debate, but it is a dangerous game to be accusing officials of purposely making calls in favor of one team or another, especially without hard evidence.

What was more to the point was the Panamanian Football Federation's statement lambasting the standard of officiating at the Gold Cup and calling for change at CONCACAF.

Putting all the controversy to one side, Mexico is not playing well and is having a poor summer, despite reaching the Gold Cup final with every chance of defeating Jamaica on Sunday.

El Tri have enjoyed a lot of luck so far and hasn't shown much in terms of positivity on the field. The poor performance against Panama wasn't expected, especially after Mexico had improved in the quarter against Costa Rica. "Today we didn't play at all well; we didn't deserve to win the game," said manager Miguel Herrera, summing up the match.

Panama striker Luis Tejada was sent off during a controversial semifinal defeat to Mexico in the Gold Cup.

"We didn't have chances; we didn't have the ball; we gave it up and we've failed."

It was a rare moment of objectivity from a coach who usually defends his team to the hilt. Herrera even conceded that the penalty wasn't warranted.

Where the coach stumbled was on explaining why his team hadn't performed and what went wrong. "It was a bad afternoon," said Herrera, offering little other reasoning aside from that.

He then got worked up arguing there was no reason for Guardado to purposely miss his penalty kick in the interest of fair play, referencing the debatable "No era penal" decision that awarded a penalty to the Netherlands over Mexico in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup.

"I didn't hear that question in the World Cup when were knocked out for a penalty that wasn't," he said. "It seems that only Mexico should declare itself guilty."

It didn't come across very well, and with one win in normal time in the past 12 matches for El Tri, it's been a difficult and long summer for the coach.

Mexico players didn't speak to the media -- aside from the TV rights holders, which they are contractually obliged to -- for the second consecutive game, though nobody has explained why.

Herrera is looking tired and as though he isn't enjoying his job as he once did. Had Mexico not been given that penalty and gone out of the Gold Cup, his future would have been a hot point of debate.

Now, even if Mexico does lift the cup, the doubters are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

It all emphasizes what a difference a year can make in the job of El Tri manager and what a strange atmosphere surrounds the Mexico camp ahead of Sunday's Gold Cup final.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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