Mexico came from behind to beat Ghana 2-1 at Craven Cottage and might possibly have saved Hugo Sanchez his job as national team coach.
The former Real Madrid and Mexico legend had been on deathwatch all week, after the nation’s U23 team, which Sanchez also coaches, failed to qualify for this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, after losing to Guatemala and drawing with Canada earlier this month.
On Monday, the Mexican federation meets to consider Sanchez’s 18-month reign, and are widely expected to send him packing. If anything might have changed their mind however, it was El Tri snatching a win from the jaws of defeat at Fulham.
John Mensah hauled back Mexican Qiu Qiu Online substitute Adolfo Bautista as he muscled his way into the box with a minute to play, and Pavel Pardo converted the penalty to send the Mexicans home victorious.
The scoreline was harsh on a Ghana side who had dominated the majority of the second half and overpowered their CONCACAF opponents in the midfield exchanges.
Michael Essien looked to have sent the Black Stars to victory with his spectacular 55th minute strike from 25 yards past Mexican goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, but the Chelsea star turned villain in the 77th with some slack play in front of his own goal which led to an equaliser.
The £24 million-pound player was over-casual as he jogged back with the ball, two Mexican attackers in close attendance.
Essien’s back pass was not underhit, but the greased surface took its toll as debutant goalie Patrick Antwi miscontrolled the spinning ball, allowing Carlos Salcido to slide in and then tap it into an unguarded net.
“A stupid mistake,” Ghana coach Claude Le Roy described it as afterwards. “You cannot take any risks in the last 30 yards in high-level football.”
This moment of schoolboy soccer provided delicious entertainment to the colourful and noisy Mexican expats suffering a wintry English night from the Stevenage Road stand.
The conditions were wet and chilly, the opposite of Accra or Mexico City, and with Brazil playing Sweden across town at Ashburton Grove, and England taking on France on television, the crowd at the Cottage was never going to be huge.
But the Ghanaians and Mexicans in attendance created a carnival atmosphere, a tribute to London’s multicultural preeminence, and what a difference these two peoples made to an otherwise gloomy English evening.
From the moment the opening bars of Mexico’s concerto-length national anthem caused the green-shirted players to stiffen their arms across their chests, it was never going to be a usual day at Craven Cottage.
The African fans raised a tumult of noise straight out of the recent African Cup of Nations, hosted by Ghana, while their opposition counterparts performed the wave named after them, ten minutes in.
Mexico almost stole the lead in under 20 seconds when Manchester City star Nery Castillo surged up the right wing and centred for Antonio De Nigris.
The Ankaraspor striker hit it first time but saw his shot saved by the legs of a relieved Richard Kingson.
The Central Americans, ranked 16th by FIFA to Ghana’s 15th, started the better but soon Ghana had got their measure. Anthony Annan and Essien began to boss the middle, carving through the flimsy stockade erected by the pinned-down Pardo and pint-sized Fernando Arce, while the muscular Junior Agogo ensured the Mexican back four stayed on their toes.
Yet on the stroke of half time it was the Tricolores who almost snatched the lead. Castillo sprung the Ghanaian offside trap and rounded Kingson, but with a goal looking certain, Mensah played the hero with a last-ditch tackle to stop the ball crossing the line.
After Essien’s opener ten minutes after the break, Ghana slipped into cruise control and started funnelling players forward in search of a second, but got no closer than a string of long-range efforts off-target.
Mexico had looked decidedly second-best, particularly in midfield, but their two late strikes served as a reminder that football is unpredictable and that it is goals, more than who is the best team, which win games.
Ghana coach Claude Le Roy, a familiar face having coached Cameroon, Congo and Senegal before, thought referee Rob Styles had been less than even-handed and rued the volte-face of the contest.
“I don’t know why he had something against us,” Le Roy said of the referee. “A lot, a lot of big mistakes. We are a very creative and fair team. I don’t know why he took so many decisions against us.”
“We were in the game when Michael scored the first goal,” he said. “Then we gave the chance to the Mexican players. At this time they were no more in the game. That is the permanent story of football.”
Sanchez appeared relaxed for someone apparently facing the axe, answering softly the prods from the various Mexican journalists arranged around him, some of them sniffing blood before the kick-off.
“Yes, I have to say openly that we failed, but that is a separate chapter,” Sanchez said of the Olympic setback, adding that he was now looking towards the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, which for Mexico begin in June.
“I’m asking for there to be patience and teamwork, which is the only way to get results.”
Perhaps it will all be too late. Missing out on the Olympics was a matter of national soccer shame for a country overtaken by the USA in the last decade as the premier football country of CONCACAF.
One Mexican fan held up a sign saying ‘Hugo – one more and it’s over’. Maybe it already is and the Federation’s mind is made up, but if so, at least Hugo left with a win.
GHA – Essien 55′
MEX – Salcido 77′
MEX – Pardo pen. 88′
GHANA – Richard Kingson (Birmingham City), John Paintsil (West Ham), Eric Addo (PSV) , John Mensah (Rennes), Afful Harrison (Asante Kotoko), Haminu Dramani (Lokomotiv Moscow), Anthony Annan (Stabaek), Michael Essien (Chelsea), Laryea Kingston (Hearts), Sulley Muntari (Portsmouth), Manuel Agogo (Nottingham Forest).
Subs: Owusu Abayie (Celta Vigo) for Kingston 46′, Patrick Antwi (Liberty Professionals) for Kingson 46′, Andre Ayew (Marseille) for Dramani 46′, Eric Bekoe (Asante Kotoko) for Agogo 81′.
MEXICO – Oswaldo Sanchez (Santos Laguna), Ricardo Osorio (Stuttgart), Aaron Galindo(Eintracht Frankfurt), Carlos Salcido (PSV), Fausto Pinto (Pachuca), Nery Castillo (Manchester City), Fernando Arce (Santos Laguna), Pavel Pardo (Stuttgart),, Gerardo Torrado (Cruz Azul), Antonio De Nigris (Ankaraspor), Andres Guardado (Deportivo La Coruna).
Subs: Guillermo Franco for De Nigri 46′, Jimmy Lozano (Cruz Azul) for Pinto 67′, Antonio Naelson for Arce 67′, Adolfo Bautista for Castillo 80′