Honduras comeback leaves Mexico winless through two Hex rounds

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For over an hour in Honduras, Mexico played like the team we expected to dominate CONCACAF qualifying. Their two sublime pieces of execution gave Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández a double before the hour mark and El Tri a 2-0 lead in San Pedro Sula. But 20 terrible minutes to close out the match allowed the Catrachos to fight back for a valuable point, with goals late from Carlo Costly and Jerry Bengston leaving the teams drawn, 2-2.

Dropping points at home in World Cup Qualifying is never the ideal situation, but the Hondurans will put this result in context and be happy with their point. Though Mexico is now 0-0-2 to begin their Hex, they’re still expected to win this tournament. For the teams battling for those second and third spots — positions that will qualify them for Brazil 2014 — any points you can get off the Mexicans are good ones. There’s a good chance your rivals won’t be able to duplicate your result. Having fought back to draw a match many onlookers would have felt lost, Honduras can feel a sense of accomplishment despite dropping two points at home.

That’s the telling context for a comeback that looked unlikely after Chicharito poked home a Carlos Salcedo restart in the 54th minute. But after a short lull where it seemed the match’s final half hour would leave the home side empty handed, the Hondurans woke up.

In the 77th minute, a floated far post corner kick by Mario Martinez saw Carlo Costly rise above the Mexican defense to hammer his header past Guillermo Ochoa. Shortly after the ensuing kickoff, Costly drew a penalty from Francisco Javier Rodriguez, giving Jerry Bengston a chance to equalize from the spot. Ochoa saved the initial try headed for the lower left corner, but the block back to Bengston allowed the Revolution striker to bury the tying goal.

In broad strokes, the match played out similarly to Honduras’s February qualifier against the United States. They dominated possession and were able to put more shots toward goal but still fell behind. Lack of execution in the final third meant the Catrachos struggled to convert control into chances, but thanks to late charges, Luis Fernando Suárez’s team was able to get valuable results from both matches.

Through two rounds, Honduras is 1-0-1, their four points earned against the teams expected to finish in the table’s top two spots. If they can replicate these performances (if not necessarily the results) on the road, Honduras will easily qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.

As for Mexico, they will be disappointed. Great work from Andres Guardado allowed Chicharito to head the team in front on 28 minutes, allowing Mexico to lead for the 52 minutes. The performance promised to put their round one stumble behind them.

But with a late collapse compounding their draw in Mexico against Jamaica, it may be time to wonder if El Tri will be as dominant as expected. Yes, Honduras is an extremely difficult opponent, particularly in San Pedro Sula, but this is a game Mexico was expected to win.

And through 77 minutes, Jose Manuel de la Torre’s team met those expectations. Within this struggling side, we can still see the team that will likely win this tournament. But now 20 percent through the competition without a win (and with a match against their  rivals on the horizon), Mexico’s close to a mini-crisis of their own.

Tuesday against the United States isn’t a must win, but serious questions are going to be asked if Mexico finishes the Hex’s third round with a zero in the win column. Too much is expected of this team to brush off even the smallest of slumps.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.