Mexico hands Brazil its first 2014 World Cup blemish, draws host nation, 0-0

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The favorites have been handed their first blemish, and in the process, a Mexico side that barely made Brazil 2014 assuaged doubts that their qualifying form were persist at the 2014 World Cup. After 90 minutes in Fortaleza, El Tri had earned a 0-0 draw against Brazil, leaving the North American powers even with the tournament hosts at the top of Group A.

Controlling the first half, Brazil nearly took the lead three times, though Fred, Neymar, and David Luiz each missed opportunities to open the scoring before intermission. After the break, a revitalized Mexico took more control, though the half’s best chance saw Thiago Silva nearly claim full points from Brazil in the 86th minute. A late chance for Raul Jimenez forced a diving punch by Júlio César, but come full-time, a game of two markedly different halves ended as it started. Brazil had dropped its first points of the tournament.

The teams will finish play in Group A on Monday when the hosts face Cameroon in Brasília while Mexico takes on Croatia in Recife. Both teams, sitting on four points after two games, can advance to the final 16 with victories in their final matches.

[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

Any expectations Mexico would settle into its underdog role were dispelled at the opening whistle, with a contentious Tricolor proving more energetic over the opening minutes. Once Brazil settled in, the match swung the way of the favorites, with the middle of the period defined by occasional Mexico possession breaking up Brazilian control.

That control produced the favorites’ first big chance in the 11th minute when a ball played from Oscar saw Fred shoot wide from close range. Two minutes later, a giveaway at the edge of Mexico’s defensive third led to a near-chance in transition, while a header from Neymar in the 26th minute forced a diving stop from Guillermo Ochoa. Come halftime, Brazil had registered four shots on target, with a late chance for David Luiz nearly giving the hosts a lead minutes before intermission.

Despite that advantage, Brazil changed at halftime, introducing Bernard at the expense of Ramires. The Chelsea midfielder had started in place of Hulk but to little effect, with Bernard eclipsing his contributions when a 48th minute cross nearly found Neymar at Ochoa’s right post. Francisco Rodriguez tracked the run and headed the ball out of play, thwarting the home side’s first chance of the half.

source: AP
Brazil’s Thiago Silva prevents Mexico’s Oribe Peralta from getting to the ball during the match between Brazil and Mexico. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Ten minutes into the half, however, the quality Mexico’s midfield lacked over the first half had begun to emerge, with Hector Herrera and the rest of El Tri’s three-man middle winning more 50-50 balls in the center of the park. As a result, José Juan Vazquez was able to tee-off from distance in the 55th minute, while a deflected shot from Giovani Dos Santos moments later represented Mexico’s second try in minutes. When, in the 57th minute, Herrera put a left-footed blast from 19 yards into the crowd, Mexico’s strong start to the second half had been confirmed.

Through the 69th minute, Mexico’s control continued, but when the Selecao was able to find Dani Alves at Ochoa’s left post, their progress was nearly rendered moot. Bringing a ball from wide down onto his left foot, Alves hit a hard half-volley just inside the upright. Ochoa, however, was there to make one of his six stops. When he claimed an ensuing cross, the out-of-contract keeper had defused another Brazil opportunity.

The chance signaled a turn in the game. Whereas Mexico had asserted itself over the half’s first 20 minutes, Brazil started to find opportunities as the game reached its final chapter. Suddenly an underdog that had opened up to chase an upset was forced to reassess. Forcing Mexico to make  a number of vital stops just outside its penalty area, Brazil was again dictating play.

In the 86th minute, the favorites had their last chance. After Luiz Gustavo drew a foul deep down Mexico’s right, a restart played to the edge of the six-yard box connected with an unmarked Thiago Silva, but the Brazilian captain’s header found Ochoa, who pushed the game’s chance out of goal.

The save not only kept Ochoa’s clean sheet but kept Mexico tied on top of Group A, with the team’s unlikely point from the tournament hosts meaning only goal difference separates two teams that have collected four points. Though one will celebrate while the other laments the result in Fortaleza, both teams will enter Monday’s final group games knowing a win books them a place in the second round.

Lineups

Brazil: Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva (c), David Luiz, Marcelo, Paulinho, Fred (Jô 68′), Neymar, Oscar (William 84′), Ramires (Bernard 46′), Luiz Gustavo

Goals: None.

Mexico: Ochoa, Rodriguez, Marquez (c), Herrera (Fabian 76′), Layun, Dos Santos (Jimenez 84′), Moreno, Guardado, Peralta (Hernández 74′), Aguilar, Vazquez

Goals: None.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.