Ochoa the hero as Mexico survive major Gold Cup scare... barely
HOUSTON -- Gerardo "Tata" Martino tucked the medallion his mother had given him before she passed away between his lips and asked for a favor from above. By that point of Saturday night, the Mexico coach had used up his substitutions and his tactical tweaks had been rendered irrelevant: El Tri were behind in the penalty shootout in their Gold Cup quarterfinal against Costa Rica, with the usually clinical Raul Jimenez seeing the first penalty of the shootout saved by Ticos goalkeeper Leonel Moreira.
El Tri's Gold Cup fate hung in the balance and thoughts may have flashed through Martino's mind about the backlash that would follow if Mexico crashed out of the tournament at the quarterfinal stage.
But exactly five years to the day since Arjen Robben won a controversial late penalty for the Netherlands to put Mexico out of the 2014 World Cup, Martino's petitions were answered favorably by the penalty gods.
Ochoa stretched to his right to deny Keysher Fuller in the sixth round of penalties to see Mexico eke out a win. The subsequent celebrations on and off the field, led by a relieved Jimenez, revealed the relief that Mexico had found a way past Los Ticos.
"I don't like using [the medallion] to ask for footballing favors, but for some reason I called on it and sometimes it can help me," explained Martino in the news conference after the game.
This is a Mexico team looking to regain the Gold Cup trophy as the minimum goal this summer and that has lamented not being involved in the Copa America at every opportunity. Going out at the quarterfinal would've been a bad look.
But Ochoa -- a player that had decided to play the Gold Cup despite his wife giving birth days before the tournament -- stepped up.
This had been Mexico's most important test under the Argentine manager, the first knockout game in his spell in charge and a match that pitted El Tri against a team capable of causing problems. The four friendly wins against CONMEBOL opposition in 2019 -- scoring at least three goals in each -- were impressive enough but Costa Rica's spirit was a reminder that a knockout competition brings a completely different level of intensity.
"I'm totally satisfied with getting through, the penalties rewarded the team that deserved to win," said Martino. "I said that against Costa Rica it was an early final, it is an excellent team, but the reality is that we should've won the game inside the 90 minutes."
The Ticos exposed Mexico's weaknesses in a way that hadn't been seen under Martino, even in the underwhelming 3-2 victory over Martinique in the group stage. The fact goalkeeper Ochoa was the hero serves as a reminder of that.
Costa Rica deserve much credit. They hadn't shown much form at the Gold Cup, but were intense, pressed high at times, as coach Gustavo Matosas had promised, and produced a genuine attacking threat following a plan. They had as many shots on target as El Tri over the 120 minutes, broke up the rhythm with regular fouls (25 in total) and topped Mexico in terms of expected goals (xG).
Costa Rica was able to take advantage of the fact full-backs Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez and Jesus Gallardo push high and leave space in behind. And the penalty that led to Costa Rica's Bryan Ruiz equalizing highlighted some inefficient defending from the two full-backs, both of whom are converted wingers.
Meanwhile, Edson Alvarez grew into the game in the holding midfield role, but the fact he doesn't play in the same system with Club America was on display in his positioning at times. Costa Rica played a 4-4-2 formation with two strikers waiting for direct passes to expose a Mexico team taking risks and defending 1v1. It seemed Alvarez was at times unsure whether to drop back and become an extra player in defense, or to move up to provide numeric superiority in midfield.
There is no doubt Alvarez is the player Mexico need in the vital role within Martino's 4-3-3 formation, but at America he plays central midfield alongside Argentine international Guido Rodriguez and will require time working under Martino to dominate playing in the position on his own.
Up front, Rodolfo Pizarro impressed at times, but there's still the feeling that he'd be better down the middle like at Monterrey, with a more traditional winger on the outside.
Those are all issues that are normal eight games into a process that will lead up to the 2020 World Cup and the struggles to get past Costa Rica will all be forgotten should El Tri lift the cup next Sunday in Chicago.
But still, Martino wouldn't have wanted to be clinging to his medallion and for Ochoa to be the hero as early as the quarterfinal stage of the Gold Cup. The scare for El Tri in Houston was real, but Mexico marches on and will be a heavy favorite in their semifinal on Tuesday against Haiti in Glendale, Arizona.