Talking points: Ghosts of World Cup qualifying finally fade for Mexico

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One hundred eighty minutes into Mexico’s 2014 World Cup, and let there be no doubt: Any allusion to El Tri’s qualifying form is now an anachronistic one. The troubles the team had before Miguel Herrera took over? They’re irrelevant in the face of what we saw today in Fortaleza.

Drawing the tournament favorites on their home soil, Mexico rekindled memories of 2011, when the team’s quality was living up to its golden generation hype. Under Miguel Herrera, the team has finally moved beyond its soul-crushing qualifying cycle, discarding the shackles that paralyzed the team after winning that Gold Cup. Instead of being frozen by the prospect of failure, Mexico’s played to its talent.

Granted, it was only a 0-0 draw, and if somebody were inclined to take up the Selecao’s case, they could point to Brazil’s 6-2 edge in shots on target and argues the host nation was the better side. And they’re probably be right, but that’s not the point. The point is Mexico, a team that carried huge doubts after its three-year identity crisis, is back. They may not be on Brazil’s level, but as they’ve shown throughout the last decade, they can compete over a give 90 minutes. Though it’s one game, Mexico showed it may finally be back on Mexico’s level.

That’s exactly what El Tri did in Fortaleza. After the team’s energetic start, Brazil adjusted, but the underdogs kept competing. In the second half, that tenacity gave them a spell of control, one in which they nearly crafted a winning goal. And in the match’s final throes, once Brazil had regained its footing, the team’s restored confidence allowed it to withstand the favorites’ last push.

[MORE: What do you think this means for Brazil?]

In the process, we saw flashes of that golden generation resurface, and while the team may not be fully back to its 2011 self, again, that’s not the point. After today’s result, Mexico has discarded the hollow version of itself that nearly slept-walked out of the 2014 World Cup.

Here are some other talking points after today’s result in Fortaleza:

1. Guillermo Ochoa made a lot of money  – Go to your social media vacuum of choice and do a quick search. You’ll see people marveling at the former Ajaccio goalkeeper, whose six stops included a number of the point-blank variety.

Currently out of contract, the former Club America star is benefiting from some fortuitous timing as well as the injury to José de Jesús Corona, whose absence has allowed the former El Tri number one to resume his place in the team. On Tuesday, Ochoa made the most of his opportunity, likely drawing the attention of a club willing to see if his international form can be replicated during the upcoming European season.

[MORE: Ochoa the talk of Twitter during game]

source: AP
Mexico’s Hector Herrera leaps over Brazil’s Marcelo during the match between Brazil and Mexico. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

2. Questions and answers in midfield – José Juan Vázquez was a revelation at the base of midfield against Cameroon, but el Gallito was less convincing on Tuesday. Instead, it was Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado picking up the slack in the midfield, particularly in the second half. Though the trio had trouble getting a grip on the game during the first 35 minutes, the team’s ball retention and push from the middle improved in the second. Even Vázquez was able to get forward and threaten goal twice, barely missing his target each time.

The trio will never be confused for one of the tournament’s best, but given Mexico’s injuries in midfield, that’s unrealistic standard. Instead, Mexico’s goals should be more modest: Can the trio keep Mexico in matches, provide something going forward, and establish a level of cohesion that allows them to make adjustments?

We saw all three of those qualities at various points on Tuesday. It’s just a matter of getting those various points to last closer to 90 minutes.

3. Defensive issues, or the quality of Brazil? – Based on what we know about these teams, it’s probably a little of each, but both the quality and quantity of chances Brazil created on Tuesday were problematic. “Thank God for Guillermo Ochoa” is something you neither want to or can say after every match.

Perhaps swapping the Selecao for Croatia on Monday will provide a solution, but this isn’t the first time Mexico’s back line has looked vulnerable. El Tri survived Neymar and Oscar, but against relentless a player like Mario Mandzukic, those deficiencies could again be exposed.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.