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.

Southampton pleased to nab “bonus point” vs. Spurs

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Ryan Bertrand had a fine day for Southampton in its 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, forcing Spurs into an own goal and picking up a point for its relegation battle.

[ RECAP: Saints 1-1 Spurs ]

Saints now sit a point back of safety after Stoke City leapt over them with a Saturday win, and Bertrand says the club will be buoyed by a Sunday bonus.

“Very heavy, the rain didn’t help, just pleased to come away with the point,” Bertrand said. “We have to scrap it out. We have to analyze, look at our remaining fixtures, which games you want to win and which games we’ll be slightly be the underdogs and today was a bonus point on our journey.”

Saints host Watford in the FA Cup on Saturday before welcoming Brighton on Jan. 31 for a massive midweek six-pointer (It’s the appropriate time of year to consider matches six-pointers, yes?).

Spurs, Saints play to stalemate

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  • Bertrand forces Spurs own goal
  • Kane levels before halftime
  • Spurs stay fifth
  • Saints one point back of safety

Harry Kane made amends for a Davinson Sanchez own goal as Tottenham Hotspur drew Southampton 1-1 at St. Mary’s on Sunday.

Southampton is now winless in 11 Premier League matches, while Spurs are unbeaten in six.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Spurs entered the game with Christian Eriksen and Hugo Lloris out through sickness and several more not at 100 percent, and Sanchez was surely feeling ill when his sliding attempt to block a Ryan Bertrand cross beat his own keeper to the inside post.

It was 1-1 within moments, as Kane rose over Manolo Gabbiadini after losing mark Jack Stephens on a corner kick.

James Ward-Prowse was fortunate to avoid a card when he kicked out at Jan Vertonghen following a slide tackle from the Spurs center back.

Stephens just missed making up for his error when he zipped onto Ward-Prowse’s free kick but headed just wide of the far upper 90.

Mario Lemina forced Vorm into a save after a 41st minute set-up by Gabbiadini.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ward-Prowse tried his luck from 25 yards to start the second half, but Vorm saw the ball the whole way into his arms.

Spurs grew into the second half, and Dele Alli lashed wide of the near post in the 65th minute. Vertonghen buzzed the tower with a left-footed shot five minutes later.

Would anything give as the match progressed, with Spurs inserting Erik Lamela and Saints opting for Sofiane Boufal and 17-year-old debutant Michael Obafemi?

Good work from Kane and Sissoko ended with an on-the-doorstep Lamela shooting off a Saints defender and out, poorly adjudged to be a goal kick.

Obafemi misjudged a chance to redirect a cross past Vorm in the 87th minute, and Cedric ventured a laser wide of the goal as Saints looked for a winner. Boufal was then blocked by Sanchez after taking a touch too much in the box.

Kane had late opportunity for Spurs, but dragged his shot or pass through the six without a receiver.

VIDEO: Ronaldo bloodied after diving header goal in Real rout

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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This hasn’t been a good league year for Cristiano Ronaldo nor his club Real Madrid, and the reigning league winners let their frustrations out on Deportivo de la Coruna on Sunday.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on Alexis-Mkhi ]

Ronaldo scored twice in the 7-1 rout, and the second saw his face bloodied by a boot when he went low to head home in the second half for Real’s sixth goal.

Fortunately for Ronaldo, he’s the sort of player who doesn’t care about his looks. Hilariously, cameras caught the mega star using a cell phone to assess the damage.

The goals end a three-match league dry spell for the Ballon d’Or collector, who has 17 goals in 25 matches across all competitions this season.

Real is 16 points back of Barcelona in La Liga, on pace to finish fourth in the division.

Judging the Premier League’s in-season managerial changes

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Stoke City, Swansea City, and now Watford have all made managerial changes in the last month, and await the long-term response of their players to new bosses Paul Lambert (so far, so good), Carlos Carvalhal (mixed, but a win), and probably Javi Gracia, respectively.

That means 40 percent of Premier League clubs have ditched their Opening Day bosses this season. Some were overdue, others were debatable, and the latest — Watford’s sacking of Marco Silva after denying Everton’s pursuit of the boss — is a real head scratcher.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

How have the moves worked so far?

Crystal Palace
Frank De Boer — 0W-4L
Roy Hodgson — 6W-7D-7L

Hodgson is actually on pace to outdo Sam Allardyce‘s 8W-2D-11L campaign to save Palace’s 2016-17 season. FDB’s short-lived campaign is difficult to judge, his lone win coming in the League Cup against Championship competition, but there’s little debate as to whether Hodgson’s discipline has worked at Selhurst Park.

Everton
Ronald Koeman — 2W-2D-5L
David Unsworth (caretaker) — 2W-2D-1L
Sam Allardyce — 3W-4D-3L

Everton’s entire season has been the same tale: beat the lower half clubs but fail to meet expectations against almost anyone of merit. That’s taken a dive in recent weeks, as Allardyce has drawn West Brom twice and lost at Bournemouth. Jury’s out, and Allardyce has a lot to prove as another team brings him in and spends dough on his behalf.

Leicester City
Craig Shakespeare — 1W-3D-4L
Michael Appleton (caretaker) — 1W
Claude Puel — 7W-4D-4L

It’s now two-straight seasons of poor starts dooming the Leicester City manager, and Shakespeare understandably did not get patience considering the Foxes fired the architect of their stored PL run in Claudio Ranieri (who has Nantes fifth place in Ligue 1). Puel got a rough ride from expectation-heavy Saints fans, who’d probably love to have him back right now. This is an unqualified success, and Leicester may just make it back to Europe.

Swansea City
Paul Clement — 3W-3D-12L
Leon Britton (player manager) — 1D-1L
Carlos Carvalhal — 1W-1D-1L

It’s hard to gauge whether Carvalhal was the right hire, but Swans’ record has improved in the five matches since he was fired and the lone losses are to Liverpool and Spurs. The firing, it seems, was the right call.

West Brom
Tony Pulis — 2W-4D-6L
Gary Megson (caretaker) — 2D
Alan Pardew — 1W-4D-4L

The wins still need to come, but West Brom do look a more promising side and Alan Pardew’s desire to play two strikers certainly makes for better entertainment than Tony Pulis’ unit. Like Everton, the jury is still out. If we had to judge, we’d say it’s the right move for a fan base which prefers a more fashionable style of play (but also prefers being in the Premier League).

West Ham
Slaven Bilic — 2W-3D-6L
David Moyes — 4W-4D-4L

So far, Moyes is doing wonders for his reputation while performing feats that Everton is still seeking from Allardyce; West Ham has spent some money, and Moyes is getting performances out of Marko Arnautovic and using his width well (Arthur Masuaku has been impressive at full back).