Nightmare finally over: Mexico cruises in New Zealand, becomes the 31st team to qualify for 2014 World Cup

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The disappointment of CONCACAF’s final round is officially meaningless. Three wins in 10 to close qualifying? It doesn’t matter, nor does the four-coach carousel that left Mexico in turmoil or El Tri’s need to have their World Cup lives saved by the arch rival Americans. After their two-legged playoff romp of Oceania champion New Zealand, the only thing that matter to Mexico soccer are six words: El Tri are going to Brazil.

Fueled by a first half hat trick from Santos Laguna’s Oribe Peralta, Mexico became the 31st team to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the ease of their playoff’s second leg in Wellington better described by the tie’s aggregate score than the 4-2 victory Miguel Herrera’s team collected on Wednesday. Finishing their 180 minutes against the All Whites with a 9-3, Mexico easily qualified for a sixth straight World Cup.

It was just over a month ago that those World Cup hopes were on life support, Mexico’s impending loss in Costa Rica on CONCACAF’s last qualifying match day set to eliminate the team as Panama held on to a 2-1 lead over the United States. Then, in stoppage time in Panama City, a Graham Zusi goal pulled the U.S. even, a result that would allow Mexico to stay ahead of the Canaleros to claim CONCACAF’s playoff spot. When Aron Johansson gave the U.S. a win one minute later, Mexico had survived, if miraculously so.

Now, 36 days later, Mexico’s been reborn, a transformation that’s involved wholesale changes by Herrera, hired after the team’s loss in Costa Rica. Coming off a win last week in Mexico City, those changes were again evidence in the team’s starting XI – the same 5-3-2 formation that produced a 5-1 win at Estadio Azteca. Conversely, New Zealand made five changes, Ricky Herbert sacrificing a defender for an attacker as the All White set up to chase goals.

Yet as if picking up from leg one, it only took 14 minutes for Mexico to increase their lead. Whereas El Tri had failed to beat Glen Moss minutes earlier, a move orchestrated by Carlos  Pena and Oribe Peralta eventually beat the Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper for the opener. Running across New Zealand captain Tommy Smith and behind the All Whites line, Peralta scooped Pena’s through ball over a sliding Moss from six yards out, the ball descending down and over the goal line to make it 6-1.

By the 22nd minute, when a ball threaded through the defense forced Moss into a point-blank stop on Raúl Jiménez, Mexico was using New Zealand’s desperation to their advantage, turnovers forced at the edge of their defensive third rewarded with space in midfield. Although the Kiwis were able to pose an occasional threat, as they did through Jeremy Brockie in the 24th minute, Mexico were still generating the better chances. In the 29th minute, Miguel Layún found an unmarked Peralta at the top of the six-yard box for an embarrassingly easy goal.

source: AP
Miguel Herrera will now return to his job with Club América, but after leading Mexico through their World Cup qualifying playoff, the interim boss is expected to be offered the permanent position ahead of Brazil 2014 (Photo: AP Photo.)

Four minutes later, Peralta had his hat trick, a goal created after a New Zealand turnover deep in their own end allowed Pena to get behind the defense. Replicating goal number two, Mexico increased their overall lead to seven with Peralta’s left-footed finish from just outside the six.

Even when things broke right for New Zealand, it was to no avail. In the 39th minute, Mexico goalkeeper Moises Muñoz conceded a penalty kick – a chance for the Kiwis to give the packed stands at Westpac Stadium reason to buzz going into halftime. Instead, Brockie served a thigh high shot well inside the left post, allowing Muñoz to keep it 3-0.

A second half played at a gallop saw New Zealand dominate possession but initially generate few chances on Muñoz, Mexican energies funneled into defense able to neuter any threat the All Whites posed from their myriad corner kicks. Despite the hosts’ control of the ball, attention was on whether Perelta would get a fourth, not whether Herbert’s side would get their consolation.

In the 72nd minute, Peralta nearly scored a fourth, a ball headed for goal kept out by a New Zealand defender. In the 75th, a cross from the right just hopped over Peralta’s boot, the Man of the Match again unmarked at the edge of the six-yard box. Replaced in the 76th minute, Peralta would have to content himself with the mere three goals.

In the 80th minute, New Zealand began collecting their small but (if the crowd’s raucous reaction was any indication) important consolation, a generously given penalty off a Rafa Marquez handball allowing Chris James to get the All Whites on the board. Finishing high into the right of goal, James cut the Kiwis’s deficit to two, with a volleyed conversion by Brockie off an 83rd minute cross bringing the hosts within one on the night. When Pena added Mexico’s final goal in the 87th minute, however, the air left had once again left the New Zealand sails.

Ultimately the story was less New Zealand’s silver lining than Mexico’s rebirth, with players like Peralta casting further doubt on the importance of European-based players to Mexico’s cause. Herrera controversially omitted all foreign-based talents from has playoff squads, leaving the likes of Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado, and Giovani Dos Santos with their English and Spanish clubs. But in Peralta, Pena, and Raúl Jiménez, Herrera found players that were capable of performing to Mexico’s standards, and while the seleccion has seven months to figure out how to re-integrate those superior talents, Herrera’s point was proven. Mexico has enough talent not to be beholden to reputations.

Ideally, El Tri’s playoff success would serve as a wakeup call for the collection of talented but underperforming stars that once looked like a golden generation. But if the Hernandez and Dos Santoses of the world can’t reestablish their pre-qualifying form, Herrera has given the seleccion a way to be competitive next summer. At least, the home-based crew has proved more willing to fight than the superstars they replaced, a fight that’s qualified Mexico for another World Cup.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
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Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.

Premier League Power Rankings: In tiers

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Liverpool has knocked Manchester City from the Champions League, but sits 19 points behind the leaders and City has a match-in-hand.

Manchester United beat City just weeks ago, but was bounced from the UCL even earlier. The Red Devils also took four of six points from Liverpool.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Spurs are fourth in the table but also took four of six from Liverpool and could be level on points with the Reds by winning its match-in-hand.

So the question remains, who’s the best team in the Premier League right now? That’s why we’re revisiting our Premier League Power Rankings for the first time in a while, since City was the unquestioned No. 1 for months.

Will it change anything? Spoiler alert: Probably not.

Spots 20-14: Not safe yet

20. West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies are going down, but Darren Moore has at least instilled some life into a moribund bunch which was saddled with the dour and unsuccessful tactics of Tony Pulis before moving onto the peppy and hard-to-understand tactics of Alan Pardew.

19. Stoke City — The Paul Lambert jump has faded, and the Potters’ inferior goal differential and one more match played than both Southampton and Swansea City feel like a death knell.

18. Southampton — Yes, the Bottom Three is the same as the table, but Saints are a New South Coast Derby win away from sitting three points back of pulling Palace and perhaps Huddersfield Town and West Ham United back into the picture.

17. Huddersfield Town — If David Wagner cannot lead the Terriers past Everton this weekend, his side finishes at Man City, at Chelsea, and home to Arsenal. That’s a recipe for watching a six-point advantage on the drop zone melt away.

16. Swansea City — Still four points clear of the drop zone, Swans have the cup half-full of facing Saints and Stoke City. The two sides aren’t very good, but also the only teams to worry about when it comes to their Premier League lives.

15. Crystal Palace — Given their turnaround from the beginning of the season, it feels dirty to have them so low. But of the three clubs sitting six points clear of 18th, the Eagles are the one to have three matches left and not four.

14. West Ham United — A brutal schedule featuring two of David Moyes‘ old sides — Everton and Manchester United — means the Irons cannot breathe safely yet (especially with Swans, Saints, and Stoke set to take points off each other).


Spots 13-11: Foot off the gas (and is there any gas in the tank?)

13. Watford — Javi Gracia may have Watford safe, and that was his charge, but the Hornets look like the same team they did under previous bosses. The Hornets have two points from their last six, and would be much further down the table if they weren’t essentially safe.

12. Bournemouth — Eddie Howe is probably wondering how that Arsenal chair would feel right about now, as the Cherries have probably reached a glass ceiling. Now a derby against Saints can define the run-in to the season.

11. Brighton and Hove Albion — Perhaps satiated by a five-match unbeaten run that featured a win over Arsenal and beat downs of Swansea and West Ham, Chris Hughton‘s Gulls have two points in five matches including a derby loss to Palace.

10. Everton — Sam Allardyce‘s men nicked a win off of Newcastle last weekend, and it was about as satisfying as moribund draws against Liverpool’s B Team and Swansea City. There’s a lot of unrest at Goodison Park, and Sam Allardyce has to go. Because of the relative positive vibes at lower table sides Leicester and Newcastle, Everton sinks beneath them.

9. Leicester City — A fun team which has had infuriating lapses at the back. Jamie Vardy‘s as reliable as ever, and there’s a real question what they’ll do without Riyad Mahrez (allegedly) in the future. Wilfred Ndidi, Demarai Gray, and Fousseni Diabate look a big part of said future, but it’s a bit alarming that the Foxes haven’t been able to take advantage of the relatively open door to seventh since Claude Puel righted Craig Shakespeare‘s sinking ship.

8. Newcastle United — The Magpies saw their win streak snapped by Everton, but Rafa Benitez is playing with house money after coaxed a midtable season out of a Championship squad. A healthy Islam Slimani has moved Dwight Gayle to his rightful role as a spark plug off the bench, but don’t sleep on the wonders Benitez has worked in turning Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, and Paul Dummett into serviceable Premier League players. The future is bright if Mike Ashley sells the team or at least opens his purse strings to make one of the longest road trips in the PL even harder for visitors to St. James’ Park.


Spot 7: One of the best stories in Premier League history

7. Burnley — A loss to Chelsea and draw with Stoke has sunk Sean Dyche‘s excitement, we’re sure, but Southampton’s departure from the FA Cup means seventh place means Europa League. It’s Burnley in Europe: Yes, for real!


Spots 6-4: The bargaining stage of grief

6. Chelsea — The Blues have won two-straight in the league and reached an FA Cup Final against old pal Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but there’s as much uncertainty at Stamford Bridge as there is at the Emirates. The difference? We know Roman Abramovich will spend more to try to fix it.

5. Arsenal — The danger of slipping behind Burnley and into seventh on the table has passed, but the Arsene Wenger goodbye tour is focused firmly on the Gunners’ fate versus Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Europa League and the quite decent form of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as a resurgent and healthy Aaron Ramsey. Defenders need improving in a big way and there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding Wenger’s replacement. Don’t know what you’ve got til its gone?

4. Spurs — No trophy again this season, and there’s a very good chance Tottenham will miss out on third place by virtue of goal difference when all is said and done; When all’s said and done, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will have drawn 1-1 or 0-0 against West Brom, Swansea, Watford, West Ham, Saints, and Brighton. That’ll render a decent record against top foes less impressive.


Spots 3-1: Power trio

3. Manchester United — The Red Devils are better than almost everyone thinks despite precious few standout seasons from its players (David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard are among the pardoned). When it comes to talking progress, however, second place won’t cut it: Mourinho needs that FA Cup win over Chelsea, a trophy United hasn’t won since (checks his notes) oh, two seasons ago.

2. Liverpool — The Reds looked incredible in dicing up Roma for 80 minutes, but allowed Roma a sliver of hope. Moreover, the last four goals Liverpool has allowed have come in the 79th, 88th, 81st, and 85th minutes. Why won’t we put them ahead of City? Well, let me clarify: it’s not PST, it’s me. I’ll own this: As brilliant as Liverpool was against City, they were out-chanced 31-14 over two legs. Give me that scenario 100 times, and I’m betting on the 31 about 85-90 times. The Reds are almost there, and Naby Keita over Jordan Henderson would be a huge upgrade (especially if this success convinces Emre Can to stick around). Next year, yeah. This year, just no.

  1. Manchester City — The records continue to fall, and it’s funny to consider that should City had lost the first Manchester Derby and been knocked out of the UCL a round earlier — yes, even by Liverpool in the same manner — no one would be arguing for anyone other than City at No. 1.

WATCH: Giovinco levels CONCACAF Champions League Final

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A trademark Sebastian Giovinco goal snapped a 1-1 first half tie and put Toronto FC in the driver’s seat for Major League Soccer’s first title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

Jozy Altidore scored the first goal after Orbelin Pineda put Chivas Guadalajara ahead early in Mexico, and the tie is level at 3-3 after 135 minutes.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Toronto needs to score once more and stay ahead by one, or win in penalty kicks.

The winner goes to the Club World Cup in December.

Look at this quick work from Giovinco after Marky Delgado slipped him into his office.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

AP Photo/Julia Chestnova
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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.