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.

LIVE, FA Cup semifinal: Man United v Tottenham

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Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur clash in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday (12:15 p.m. ET kick off) with both Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho aiming to keep alive their only remaining hope of winning a trophy this season.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

For Spurs, they are certainly used to playing at Wembley after calling it home all season long while their new stadium is completed. Yet Harry Kane and Co. know they will keep hearing about how they need to win a trophy to prove themselves as Spurs have gone 10 years without a piece of silverware.

Mourinho is the master of grinding out wins in these kind of situations but United were dominated by Spurs at Wembley back in January in the PL and were lucky to escape with just a 2-0 defeat.

[ MORE: Minute-by-minute on United v Spurs ]

Click on the links above to follow the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis live from Wembley right here on Pro Soccer Talk.

Klopp puts Liverpool’s blown lead down to unwatered grass

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Jurgen Klopp puts Liverpool’s blown two-goal lead at 20th place West Bromwich Albion down to water.

[ RECAP: WBA 2-2 Liverpool ]

The Reds boss, who rested Roberto Firmino, Dejan Lovren, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and his usual fullbacks, is peeved that West Brom didn’t water the Hawthorns pitch at halftime.

Liverpool went ahead 2-0 late in the second half when Mohamed Salah equalled the single season Premier League goal record.

But the Baggies struck twice in the final 11 minutes and out shot the Reds 13-9 over 90 minutes to pluck a point.

That sort of performance can serve them well in the Championship, Klopp said, clearly displeased with both teams.

“It was a difficult game as the pitch got drier and drier,” he said. “West Brom decided not to water the pitch at half-time and that makes it difficult. It makes a massive difference. A team like West Brom do not need a wet pitch, they can do it next year playing on a dry pitch in the Championship.”

This wasn’t about dry turf, but Klopp will have wanted to avoid discussing Liverpool’s quarter-hour regression to a side that struggles to defend and blows lead.

All that said, he only had one of his preferred back four on the field, and a UEFA Champions League date with Roma ahead on Tuesday. But competitors are competitors and cannot dodge distaste for dropped points.

He’ll be fine given a few days, saying the match stings now but won’t affect their upcoming Anfield night in the UCL.

Watch Live: Watford vs. Crystal Palace

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Crystal Palace can all but clinch Premier League safety with an away win over Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Palace’s twin tower strikers Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth are on the bench against the Hornets, who have captain Troy Deeney and Stefano Okaka up top.

LINEUPS

Watford: Karnezis; Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney, Okaka. Subs: Gomes, Britos, Femenía, Janmaat, Richarlison, Sinclair, Gray.

Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Ward, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt, Loftus-Cheek, Milivojevic, Cabaye, McArthur, Townsend, Zaha. Subs: Speroni, Kelly, Wan-Bissaka, Riedewald, Lee, Benteke, Sorloth.

West Brom 2-2 Liverpool: Baggies fight back

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  • Salah equals Liverpool’s club-record of 31 PL goals in a single season
  • Liverpool unbeaten in last 10 PL games v. West Brom
  • West Brom eight points from safety 

West Bromwich Albion fought back from 2-0 down late on to draw 2-2 against Liverpool at the Hawthorns on Saturday as Jurgen Klopp‘s men threw away three points.

Liverpool led 2-0 with goals from Danny Ings and Mohamed Salah but West Brom fought back in the final 10 minutes as Jake Livermore hooked home and Salomon Rondon equalized with a header.

Despite the point West Brom are still eight points off safety with three games to go and remain bottom of the table as they can be relegated on Sunday if results for Swansea and Crystal Palace go against them. Liverpool lost ground in the race for second place with the late collapse.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Liverpool got off to a perfect start as a short corner set Mane free and his cross into the box found Georginio Wijnaldum who set up Ings to slam home his first PL goal for Liverpool since 2015. What a moment for the England international who has been through injury hell.

Soon after Salah cut inside from the right and curled an effort towards the top corner which was deflected just wide.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Ings nodded over a difficult chance, Salah sent a free kick just wide and Ings had another effort well smothered by Ben Foster, but West Brom battled their way back into the game as James McClean‘s effort across goal was almost tapped home by Jay Rodriguez.

Liverpool were just about worthy of their half time lead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The second half featured a few flash points early on as Craig Dawson appeared to bring down Ings in the box but nothing was given, then Ahmed Hegazi appeared to punch Ings off the ball but referee Stuart Attwell missed the incident.

Salah then seemed to put the game beyond doubt as he finished off a through ball from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to give Liverpool a 2-0 lead and take this tally to 41 for the season in all competitions.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

West Brom gave themselves hope late on as a looped ball to the back post found Rodriguez and he hooked it back in for Livermore to make it 2-1.

The Baggies then equalized as Rondon headed home to set up a wild finish, but they couldn’t grab a dramatic winner as their relegation from the Premier League is all but confirmed.