World Cup

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Mexico exhales, escapes heavy burden

BREATHING SPACE
Javier Hernandez (R) congratulates teammate Aldo De Nigris (L) winner vs. Jamaica.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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KINGSTON, JAMAICA

DEF JAM

Check out all the action from Mexico's World Cup qualifying victory over Jamaica.

In the minute before the opening whistle, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez fell to his knees and turned his gaze to the dense, muggy air above him. The “Little Pea” and his band of fellow Mexicans needed this one badly. So beside him, strike partner Aldo De Nigris did the same, raising his arms and looking up. Together, they prayed for a better outcome than Mexico’s first three World Cup qualifiers which all ended in disappointing draws. They prayed for a win.

Facing Jamaica here on Tuesday night, their prayers would be answered with a feeble, if sufficient, 1-0 win.

That quiet moment of contemplation, introspection and communing had been cinematic in its beauty, set amid the deafening bedlam of the National Stadium: a bowl-shaped venue better known as The Office. As the Mexican forwards crossed themselves over and over, the stadium deejay screeched into a microphone, maxing out its capacity. The thumping bass-line of dance hall music tore through speakers turned loud enough to blow satellites out of the sky. When the game began, the music cut out in favor of air horns and a brass band.

And then the real chaos was unleashed. On the lush green field, ringed by a blue running track, a concrete velodrome and steep banks of rickety stands, populated by frenzied fans, a helter-skelter game unfolded.

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The Jamaicans were aggressive and well organized but ultimately lacked the skill to match their outsized athleticism. Mexico, meanwhile, once again struggled to establish that rhythm and flow they so badly need to achieve. Sloppy and overeager, El Tri mostly lumped long balls forward which were easily intercepted by Jamaica’s back line, who were imperious in the air.

Jamaica didn’t fear their favored opponents, but then they didn’t have the means or wherewithal to make their lives difficult either. A crowded midfield forced the play out wide and into the deep spaces. It made for messy but fun football. Jamaica labored, and Mexico tried to make its technique prevail, but neither could glean an edge. It wasn’t until the 34th minute that a serious shot was fired, when Hernandez saw his low, hard shot from outside the box touched wide and off the post by the excellent Donovan Ricketts. That unlocked the game somewhat, with Garath McCleary proving a menace for Jamaica and Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera perpetually running at Jamaica’s wing backs to serve their strikers.

Right after half time, De Nigris headed home the game’s only goal. Carlos Salcido made a deft, overlapping run up the left and delivered a precise cross, briefly hushing the din.

For a time, the game kicked suddenly and violently into high gear, but after Jesus Corona saved several Jamaican efforts from point-blank range, it settled back into a crawl. Hernandez would get another good look but found Ricketts in his way again. And Jamaica had a few promising openings in the Mexican box. But no more goals were registered.

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Mexico hadn’t won a game yet this year. Their record is now a win and six draws from seven. Their deep slump was busted and the flames of the fire engulfing manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre will die down a tad.

For a few days at least, Mexico’s World Cup qualification campaign is back on track. They travel to Panama City next on June 7 and host Costa Rica in Mexico City on June 11 before the Confederations Cup and then the Gold Cup. El Tri remains troubled, but in the hot and heavy air of the Kingston night, they sucked in some breathing room.

“The team has always been convinced of their capabilities,” de La Torre said following the game. “Sometimes the goals don’t come as you like and the results don’t follow these capabilities and this has been happening. The most important thing today was getting the points. Overall this is a very good result for us.”

The embattled manager spoke of a game plan that had worked and a performance that followed a design. He was probably being generous to himself. But such is the prerogative of the victor.

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As for Jamaica, the daunting prospect of reaching at least the top four in a group with the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama now looms taller over the Reggae Boyz than ever. With two points from four games, they have just six remaining contests to scrounge up the requisite points. Jamaica will not have too much time to regroup as they host the United States on Friday. They will hope to avoid a second consecutive dispiriting home loss even if they perhaps know better.

“We know it’s going to be tough, we set out on ten tough games,” said Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore. “We’re very disappointed but we’ll have to stay strong. We’re still just one win away [from the qualifying places in the table]. We can definitely still turn it around.”

On my way to the game, a waiter at my hotel had advised me not to believe in Jamaica. “They’re whack,” he said simply, in his barely comprehensible accent. “They always let us down. The new generation believes in them, but they’ll soon learn better.”

In any given game, only one team’s prayers can be heeded.

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