Guillermo Ochoa seizing Mexico's No. 1 goalkeeper job at perfect time
MEXICO CITY -- Guillermo Ochoa's performance on Tuesday night at San Jose's Estadio Nacional was reminiscent of one he had 10 years ago when Mexico defeated Brazil 2-0 in the 2007 Copa America. On that occasion, Ochoa denied Robinho and Vagner Love of clear scoring chances, while Nery Castillo scored one of the greatest goals ever scored by a Mexican international in an important tournament. The only way Costa Rica was going to surpass Ochoa was via an incredible goal, and Marco Urena made it happen with a fantastic volley that lasered the ball into the top right corner.
This particular Mexico camp was a different one for Ochoa because Alfredo Talavera, who's recovering from knee injury, wasn't on the squad. If one thing has been noticeable throughout the Juan Carlos Osorio era, it is that the Colombian manager has a lot of respect for both Ochoa and Talavera, and believes that Talavera should also be playing in Europe as Ochoa has been doing since 2011. Since Osorio took over, Ochoa and Talavera have acted as the two main starting goalkeepers for El Tri. For example, in the March hexagonal games, Ochoa was given the start against Costa Rica at Estadio Azteca and days later, Talavera against Trinidad and Tobago at Port of Spain's Hasely Crawford Stadium.
However, something interesting happened over the summer in the Confederations Cup, with Ochoa starting all the games, except for the match against New Zealand. And it can be said that in the last two games -- vs. Panama and vs. Costa Rica -- Ochoa's presence in goal was fundamental to El Tri avoiding defeat.
The new Standard Liege goalkeeper is preparing to participate in his fourth World Cup, but it has never been easy for him to become the undisputed No. 1 goalkeeper for El Tri. The competition has always been intense, and his direct competitors have been historics like Oscar "Conejo" Perez and Oswaldo Sanchez. Considering his heroics in the 2012 London Olympics, the presence of Jose de Jesus Corona continues to be one that sets up a lot of competition for El Tri's starting goalkeeper role.
But Ochoa's experience is almost unmatchable, and his leadership is starting to become more noticeable than ever. His presence in goal allows Osorio's Mexico to best execute the playing style that the Colombian manager expects to see from his team.
"Throughout the process, the team has accomplished interesting things," Ochoa said a day before El Tri's 1-1 tie against Los Ticos. "We clearly understand the style of play that he wants us to execute. I think that the dialogue with El Profe has always been clear, and that allows us to better understand our opponent on and off the field.
"We have done great things, and there are others, as it has always been the case, that we have to fix. We have to better ourselves each day, and that's what we plan to do from now until the World Cup."
Over the last two games, Ochoa has made 10 saves -- five in each -- but returning to the leadership element that he offers to the squad, his presence was also important in order to direct the defensive backline. Although Ochoa played behind two different backlines in the last two games, it looked like he had played with them many times before. Andres Guardado was the team's captain the last two games, but Ochoa was also an important voice and a main reason why El Tri only conceded once in the 180 minutes.
"I was pleasantly surprised with how the fans show their support toward their national team," noted Osorio after the match. "This is a beautiful venue to play a great game, and it will be a great experience for our young players like Jesus Gallardo, Edson Alvarez, Hirving Lozano and Cesar Montes, who are Mexican football's present and future. They're going to grow a lot because it's not easy to play here."
Three of the four players Osorio mentioned were part of the team's defense. Ochoa had two important jobs during the match: To keep the defense compact, especially with Alvarez and Gallardo as the full-backs, and to respond with difficult saves when Los Ticos took long-range shots. Bryan Ruiz took one hard shot less than 30 seconds into the match, and Ochoa had to respond right away.
Ochoa showed a lot of confidence in the last days, and that's good news for Osorio's men. Now he heads back to Belgium, where Standard Liege have conceded 11 goals through five matches, but it must also be highlighted that without Ochoa in goal, perhaps Standard might have conceded more. Ochoa's role at Standard demands him to be on high alert always, and that may be a reason why his recent performances with El Tri were almost picture perfect.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.