Mexico boss Manuel Jose de la Torre made one change from Friday’s draw in Honduras, inserting the impressive young Diego Reyes in at centre back for the suspended skipper, Francisco Rodriguez. Reyes, on his way to Porto in the summer, is a player I have watched for some time and he certainly is no drop off from Rodriguez.
Jurgen Klinsmann was forced into two changes from Friday’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica, with the injured duo Clarence Goodson and Jermaine Jones being replaced by Matt Besler and Maurice Edu.
The national anthems bellowed around Estadio Azteca, both sides desperate for their first win of the Hex set up, the game kicked off and then things changed.
It immediately didn’t feel as hostile. I wasn’t inside the stadium but even watching on television I could sense it. The crowd didn’t seem behind their team as much as they usually are and although Mexico dominated the early period of the game they didn’t really threaten Brad Guzan’s goal. What they did do was get early yellow cards for Matt Besler and DeMarcus Beasley, thanks to excellent runs by Javier Aquino and Giovani Dos Santos.
Aquino had a fine game, sticking to the touchline to stretch the field, being a good outlet for Carlos Salcido’s long balls and causing Beasley numerous amounts of problems with his positioning. The young winger was actually a rare bright spot for a Mexican team having many issues in the final third.
The support given to Javier Hernandez was very poor. American defenders Besler and, in particular, Omar Gonzalez were excellent but, in truth, Mexico’s qualities weren’t on show to test them fully.
You could of course take the line that an American team, stacked with MLS players, were outstanding in defence and that, perhaps, is very fair and certainly Klinsmann found out things about some of his players today, but I still felt Mexico’s issues were more to do with their own problems rather than any caused by their opponents. They were a team very easy to defend against and that is very unlike Mexico at the Azteca, with one of the game’s best finishers in their side.
Giovani Dos Santos is a very frustrating player. When the team is flying he can be the real leader of the orchestra, pinning passes into key spaces and dribbling by opponents, but when things get tight he disappears. His overall showing in this game highlighted just why he has had a difficult time taking over club matches. Playing off the striker, for long periods, he drifted out of the game, picked up the ball in deep areas, was poor with set piece deliveries and didn’t make it hard defensively on either Edu or Michael Bradley.
With 18 minutes left, the pressure on Dos Santos to create was eased when left back Jorge Torres was withdrawn for forward Angel Reyna and he immediately made a difference, opening up an American defence before Edu chopped down Aquino in the box for what appeared to be a penalty. It wasn’t given.
The US were always going to need some luck as well if they were going to avoid losing in Mexico for a World Cup qualifier for just the second time and that was it.
As the clock ran down the Americans actually defended as a unit even better. They got deeper, naturally, but stuck to their task very well and only really came under threat from a couple of corners (of which Mexico had 15!). Their second ever away point against Mexico is a massive bonus for the team inside an extremely competitive Hex. They are far from guaranteed a spot in Brazil but this will be a big boost for them and, perhaps more importantly, their coaching staff.
Mexico are far too talented to make qualification too difficult. Three points and no wins from their first three games is a major surprise and it will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to two more dropped points. de la Torre is under big pressure to keep his job and it won’t have been helped that his team was booed off the field at the end. He may focus on the non-penalty call but, deep down, he is sure to have a lot more than just that on his mind right now.
Jorge Sampaoli had to do without the suspended Alexis Sanchez for this match, just his second in charge of the national team, and the Argentine boss brought back memories of the team under Marcelo Bielsa by playing a back three with high wing backs.
Oscar Tabarez was without Maxi Pereira – so Matias Aguirregaray was the natural replacement – and he made three other significant changes picking Edinson Cavani instead of Diego Forlan, Gaston Ramirez instead of Cristian Rodriguez and Egidio Arevalo Rios instead of Diego Perez. Arevalo and Cavani, in particular, were not surprising selections seeing they had come on in the second half of Friday’s 1-1 draw with Paraguay. Interestingly, he chose not to play Diego Perez alongside Arevalo, opting again for an attack minded lineup with Nicolas Lodeiro playing midfield.
Crossbars and faces were hit, shinbones and Uruguayan right backs were run all over and systems and formations were swapped and swapped time and time again. It was a breathtaking match.
The first half was played at an incredible pace, with both teams taking it in turns to attack each other’s goal. Chile started really well, benefiting from a back three, by finding an extra man constantly in passing triangles. Uruguay had a good spell shortly after and during this time Chile countered well and opened the scoring from a casual ball over the top that wasn’t dealt with by the visitors. Aguirregaray took a touch, panicked and lost the ball and seconds later Esteban Paredes poked the Chileans into a 1-0 lead. Santiago exploded.
With emotions high in the stands and on the pitch, the game cruised into another gear, one I was unsure it could even find. Thankfully the referee was in good shape and was able to keep up with the match because this was a typical example of the modern day game being played at a ferocious pace.
Alvaro Pereira chopped down ‘the Pitbull’ Gary Medel when he left his studs raised to connect into his shin. Pereira didn’t even see yellow when he should have been sent off. Shortly after, Luis Suarez punched Gonzalo Jara in the face in the lead up to a corner, one the visitors who claim crossed the line. It was certainly a night for the officials to be on their game. Phil Dowd wouldn’t have lasted a half let me tell you!
Aguirregaray was the final man to get booked in the first half when he chopped down Eugenio Mena, the left sided player who combined really well with Eduardo Vargas throughout. Aguirregaray was mercifully removed at half-time and although his replacement, Alejandro Silva, did hit the bar he also got booked and struggled up against Vargas, the game’s best player.
It was a real joy to watch Chile express themselves with the ball and Sampaoli’s system deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. They pressured intelligently without the ball and were comfortable with it throughout.
It doesn’t take much to get Chilean fans to talk about Bielsa and they will be sure speaking of how much this side reminded them of his tonight. Even the changes Sampaoli made were something his fellow countryman would have done. Mati Fernandez brought a needed calmness in the midfield, when it was still 1-0, and then Carlos Carmona’s inclusion came at the exact same time as Diego Forlan came on the pitch. Tabarez countered and Sampaoli reacted perfectly.
As the game wore on it was impossible for both teams to keep up the intensity but Chile got a deserved second goal when Vargas cut in to find Fernandez whose ball to Isla opened up the Uruguay side. Fernando Muslera stopped Isla’s attempt but the ball fairly rolled to Vargas and the 23-year-old aptly finished the game off.
For Chile it was a massive three points, following four straight losses in qualifying, that will give them a real boost ahead of a winnable game at Paraguay in June. After that they finish with three of their last four games at home and now look a good bet to finish in one of the coveted top four spots for automatic qualification for Brazil 2014 (5th spot gives a playoff against Asia).
Uruguay on the other hand are in massive trouble. It is now a real possibility that the 2011 Copa America Champions may not make the World Cup. Venezuela’s 1-0 win over Colombia this evening puts Tabarez’s men in sixth place with five games to play, three of which are away from home including their next match, at Venezuela. The only two home games they have left are also very difficult, against Colombia and Argentina.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong for them but they do look a shadow of their formerselves in the transition and counter attack side of the game. Lodeiro in midfield was invisible, Ramirez was very poor once again and it is difficult for Cavani and Suarez to keep coming deep to receive the ball when those behind them are playing poorly. Tabarez is known for making key adjustments and his greatest test in this tenure as national team boss is right now. Not making the World Cup in Brazil would be nothing short of disaster for that nation and, quite honestly, a travesty for any of those who want to see the very best at the World Cup. Over to you Tabarez……
Didier Deschamps moved France back to a 4-3-3 with Yohan Cabaye coming in for Olivier Giroud and also made two changes to his back four, replacing Gael Clichy and Mamadou Sakho with Patrice Evra and Laurent Koscielny.
Vicente Del Bosque, who had Xavi announced fit before the game, chose Nacho Monreal at left back in place of the injured Jordi Alba and not surprisingly welcomed back Xabi Alonso alongside Sergio Busquets in central midfield, a partnership that did not start together in either draws against France and Finland in this group.
This was a very good football match. Unlike the past two encounters between these sides (the QF in Euro 2012 and the 1-1 draw in October) this game was not one-sided but the best team still won.
Spain weren’t back to their best but played a game very similar to many they have won during the success in the last five years. At the heart of many of those wins has been Xavi and arguably the greatest footballer the country has ever produced was at his best in this game.
France’s system worked. They played a very narrow midfield three and Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba took in turns to press with Yohan Cabaye but they were still undone by the brains and precision of passing from Xavi and his Spanish team-mates. It is difficult to criticize the position deployed by the French trio yet the visitors were still able to get in behind them and create chances via the space they found.
Both Xavi, who blazed over the bar inside five minutes, and Xabi Alonso, who then fed Xavi for another chance soon after, did very well to get in behind the trio early and as the game wore on France naturally got deeper but still had no answer for Spain’s movement.
The biggest talking point in the first half came around a collision in the box between Pedro and Hugo Lloris. Andres Iniesta played a wonderful ball over the top and Pedro got in between the defence and ran in one-on-one with the ourushing ‘keeper. The Spanish winger then put the ball around Lloris before clattering into him. At first it looked like a stonewall penalty, and a red card, but upon reflection it appeared Pedro went down a little early before contact. Was it a foul? Maybe. Do you see them given more than not? Yes. However, that doesn’t mean referee Viktor Kassai got it wrong. We must be aware in situations like this of the rules. It is far too easy for a referee to say the player went down was fouled, there’s a red card and a penalty but for such a monumental game-changing decision the referee at the time HAS to be sure he was fouled. He judged he wasn’t and I think he got it right.
It would not be Pedro’s only decisive moment as the winger got the game’s only goal just before the hour when Monreal got the better of Christophe Jallet before sending an inviting cross in that Pedro just wanted to get on the end of. It was a scrappy finish but the desire he showed to get there before Patrice Evra was impressive.
Five minutes later, Pedro, now playing centre forward with Jesus Navas on for the quiet David Villa, should have made it 2-0 when he shot over from a cross by Navas.
France did have their own chances to score but you get the feeling that when Spain give them a chance they still remain in control, unless it is from a set-piece. This remains Spain’s biggest weakness and both Raphael Varane and Evra came very close to scoring from corners in the second half. Both plays said a lot about Victor Valdes. The first one saw him rush off his line like a lunatic, exposing his goal, while the second saw him produce a brilliant palm stop against the Manchester United left back.
Other chances came for the home side, usually created by the impressive Mathieu Valbuena who reveled cutting inside a lot to create openings, something you can afford to do against Spain playing on that side as Iniesta does the same and you don’t have to stay wide to stick to your defensive responsibilities.
Pogba had a good game in midfield but spoiled it with two high tackles in a minute inside the last 15 minutes, getting his marching orders by the ref. France does not need anymore undisciplined midfielders but it should be said he more than looked the part until that moment.
For Spain the three points take them back to where they will feel they belong. At the top of Group I. They can book their tickets to Brazil 2014 now as group winners. Three wins in their next three games – Finland(a), Belarus(h), Georgia(h) – will just make it a formality. Del Bosque will be delighted they passed such a stiff test and won yet another close game against top opposition.
France are used to qualifying for tournaments through the playoffs and will now have to get used that possibility again. Lots of positives came out of this for Deschamps but one major worry continues to be the form and play of Karim Benzema, who was jeered off when substituted late in this game. He should no longer be an automatic name in the starting XI.
The home side managed by Berti Vogts made three changes to their dull 0-0 draw with Luxembourg on Friday, which was likely one of the worst matches the World Cup winning German has ever seen.
Paulo Bento made two changes from the 3-3 draw with Israel, with Danny and Vieirinha replacing Silvestre Varela and the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo.
Three points are three points and they certainly couldn’t have come at a better time for Portugal, who entered the game third in group F just behind Israel on goal difference.
Without Ronaldo and with Postiga playing up front it was absolutely no surprise that the winning goal came via a set piece, the third goal scored by Bruno Alves in qualifying, all coming via a header from a set piece.
In fact the goal today was remarkably similar to the one he scored in the reverse fixture earlier in qualifying. Watch today’s headed goal here. And now take a look at the 2:49 mark here when Joao Moutinho’s excellent corner finds the defender’s head once again.
Many will see the assist provided by Moutinho but once again the midfield maestro did so much more, including sending a great ball wide to Vieirinha that led to the corner that helped Portugal open the scoring.
Moutinho really is a special player and a pleasure to watch at the moment, who is in the form of his life. In this match his flexibility, movement and tactical intelligence meant Bento’s standard 4-3-3 was more like 4-2-3-1 in attack. This meant the Porto man was the leader of the press, regularly causing turnovers deep in his opponents half, and the holder of the key to unlock the Azerbaijan’s defence. Although this came via a set-piece and wasn’t a surprise, Bento knew he couldn’t rely on this and pushed Moutinho higher up than normal to get closer to Postiga.
Despite his goalscoring record for his country (25 goals) Postiga is not a great international forward and is not a man that can be relied on in such circumstances as this. Without Ronaldo, he certainly needed someone with Moutinho’s brain close to him and he had a couple of chances in the first half made by the Porto midfielder.
Most of Portugal’s chances came via the inventiveness of Moutinho and directness of Danny. Both players recognized the large gap between the lines of four and exposed the space centrally in behind Postiga, creating numerous chances in the first half.
Azerbaijan reluctance to bring their second bank of four deep came, once again, because of Moutinho who picked his moments to join the attack and sit deep inside a midfield three. In fact his performance was so complete you could make the argument that up against an inferior team, there really was no need for a Raul Meireles type in there and a second striker could have been more useful. More on this shortly.
The game changed in the 54th minute when English referee Andre Marriner sent off Rauf Aliyev for a second yellow card. The dismissal was certainly harsh on the forward who challenged high for a ball but didn’t make contact with his elbow. Although it was 0-0 at the time it would be too easy to say this helped Portugal score their goals, although it certainly helped them make key changes.
By this point Portugal were already dominating but with the home side down to 10-men Bento recognised immediately that Vogts played two deep lines of four and five with no striker. Meireles was rightly removed for striker Hugo Almeida as Moutinho could continue to be a deep lying playmaker and a difference maker further up the field in possession. He took his time wearing both masks but it was as the former, just four minutes after the substitution, when he sent a great ball in to Vieirinha that led to the key corner.
At 1-0 the contest was effectively and over but Portugal fans will be happy how they got a second, again through a wide area, when the excellent Fabio Coentrao found Almeida to head home. Coentrao was one of the brightest players on the night, a night when Bento’s full backs didn’t get forward as much, perhaps knowing that Moutinho would be the one to play closer to Danny and Vieirinha on the flanks.
Such games are never easy for teams like Portugal. In the wake of San Marino’s demolition to England on Friday many see games like this and expect an easy ride when the truth most international games are not like that. Portugal are also not built to see their dominance occur in the form of a scoreline. They are a patient team in possession that takes their time to break you down. They are far from perfect but with Moutinho and Ronaldo they have two world class stars who should ensure they are in Brazil, even if they need another playoff series to get there.