Too often, games with a lot at stake turn into an affair of frigid nerves, more often settled by a nervous defensive mistake than by anything else. But with the final playoff World Cup spot from CONCACAF at stake between Mexico and Panama, a hero rose to the occasion. With only five minutes left in regulation, Raul Jimenez nailed the winning goal in spectacular fashion, scoring with a bicycle kick that would have made Hugo Sanchez, who scored a few in his day, very proud. Mexico claimed the 2-1 victory and sole possession of fourth place in the Hexagonal table.
It was fitting, perhaps, that the clash between Panama and Mexico -- despite featuring occasional disjointed play, a poor penalty by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and a possible offside by him -- was decided by a goal of such power and beauty.
If Mexico qualifies for the World Cup, it's likely that much of the difficult road to get there will be forgotten, but Jimenez made sure that his goal would be remembered. He may have saved El Tri's qualifying campaign, and he did it in a way that made every Mexico fan proud.
Part of the reason Jimenez's goal was so memorable is because the rest of the match was so forgettable. Mexico did not start well. Though there were flashes of lively play, especially on attacks by Miguel Layun, the final pass to threaten the goal was missing far too often. Javier Aquino was active on the other wing, but his passes lacked precision. Giovani dos Santos, who has been one of Mexico's brightest spots during qualification, had a sub-par game.
As the scoreless minutes ticked by, the atmosphere in the not-full Azteca Stadium became noticeably tense, with thousands of anxious faces in the stands. When Mexico finally managed to score the opening goal, via Oribe Peralta in the 39th minute, it was a huge relief to El Tri supporters. Yet given that the referee missed an apparent offside on Hernandez on the scoring sequence, Mexico fans couldn't exactly enjoy in their team's attacking superiority.
The game opened up after the first goal, and Mexico had the opportunity to claim a more comfortable lead when Aquino was knocked down by Harold Cummings in the 57th minute. Hernandez stepped up to the penalty kick, but his strike lacked both power and placement and was knocked away by Panamanian goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
That left Mexico with a slim lead, and missed shots by other players, including Christian Gimenez, didn't help the cause. A number of fans in the stands optimistically started singing verses of "Cielito Lindo," but the song lacked the usual sense of celebration.
Certainly, the celebration seemed premature when substitute Luis Tejada was able to knock in the equalizer for Panama in the 82nd minute.
The air went out of the huge stadium. As Panama celebrated, a huge pall fell over the crowd. A draw, the curse of Azteca this year, would be nearly as deadly to Mexico's hopes as an outright loss.
Mexico tried to regroup and yet avoid the deja vu of the Honduras match, when, in trying to regain the victory, El Tri gave up the winning goal.
Against Panama, however, Jimenez was the hero. Perhaps playing in his home stadium gave him the confidence to attempt his audacious shot. It was so thrilling, that at first the crowd was completely stunned before giving into gleeful, unabashed excitement and joy.
Mexico's hold on the fourth spot is not secure, since a 1-0 Panama win against the United States in the final Hexagonal matches combined with an El Tri loss to Costa Rica by the same scoreline would leave Mexico behind again on goal differential. Even if fourth place is held, there is still the matter of the playoff against New Zealand.
El Tri fans can worry about all that later. For one glorious night, it should be enough that a talented player answered the call and the challenge to save the squad's mission to Brazil 2014. Supporters should celebrate the first victory in Azteca this year and the fact that they are singing and not crying.