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Mexico Shows That It Can Do

World Cup: Team shakes off early lapse on defense and defeats Ecuador, 2-1, to take sole possession of first place in Group G.

June 10, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIYAGI, Japan — Mexico's slogan for this unlikely World Cup campaign, Si Se Puede, has always been an iffy proposition at best--and an invitation for disaster at worst.

The rough English translation, "Yes We Can," was once the battle cry for a certain Anaheim baseball team, and if Mexican soccer federation officials are a little foggy on their Angel history, maybe it's wise not to tell them that when the pressure's on, the Angels can be counted on to kick the ball with the best of them.

Maybe the Mexican team should just press forward in its blissful ignorance, because what these players don't know hasn't hurt them yet. What they do know--they own sole possession of first place in Group G with one round-robin game left--ranks as one of the most surprising developments in a very surprising World Cup.

"We are lucky," Mexico backup goalkeeper Jorge Campos said after his team rallied to defeat Ecuador, 2-1, before 45,610 at Miyagi Stadium, and that's certainly putting a new twist on that borrowed slogan.

Yes, Mexico has been lucky. Lucky that Croatia upset group favorite Italy on Saturday. Lucky that Alex Aguinaga, Ecuador's captain and playmaking midfielder, was limited to 33 minutes Sunday because of a thigh injury. Lucky that 75 minutes of efficient soccer continue to get the job done in a tournament where nothing less than 90 usually is required.

Mexico fell behind Ecuador in the fifth minute, falling asleep in the back while Agustin Delgado slipped behind Rafael Marquez for the go-ahead header, and was in full-emergency alert during the last 10 minutes, wincing every time Ecuador substitute forward Carlos Tenorio touched the ball.

Tenorio, loaded with energy and the fastest man on the field, terrorized the Mexican defense after his entry in the 52nd minute. He almost scored twice in the last 10 minutes--denied first by an outstanding save by Mexico goalkeeper Oscar Perez, then missing by inches with a running blast from just outside the area.

"As with the game against Croatia, we were very cold the last 10 minutes of the game," Mexico Coach Javier Aguirre said. "The first five minutes, we were bad. The last 10, terrible. Today, we played just 75 minutes. We need to correct that."

And in a hurry. Mexico, at 2-0-0, may lead Group G with six points, three ahead of Italy and Croatia, both 1-1-0. But Aguirre knows that could be a temporary condition, dependent largely on how Italy feels about matters. Mexico closes group play Thursday against Italy in Oita--and Italy needs a victory to salvage a berth in the second round, along with its reputation after the Italians' 2-1 loss to Croatia.

Mexico, meanwhile, has clinched nothing yet. A victory or tie against Italy will send Mexico through. But a loss, coupled with a Croatia triumph over Ecuador and the goal-differential tumblers falling the right way, could send Mexico home by the weekend.

"It's going to be very hard," Aguirre said of the Italy match. "They have a lot of good players there--Inzaghi, Del Piero, Totti, Vieri ... "

Aguirre could have continued, but he had made his point.

"We're going to have to play better," he said.

How much better?

"A perfect game."

Mexico made things difficult for itself early when Ecuador's Ulises de la Cruz freed himself down the right flank and crossed to an unmarked Delgado, who headed high into the net off Perez's outstretched hand.

Five minutes in, Ecuador had its first World Cup goal, and Mexico its first deficit of the tournament.

It lasted 23 minutes. Jared Borgetti equalized when he met Ramon Morales' left-wing cross with a running volley, slicing the ball with the inside of his left foot past Ecuador keeper Jose Cevallos and against the inside netting.

The remainder of the half was dominated by fouls, falls and some bad Ecuadorean play-acting--the most glaring example being Raul Guerron clamping both hands to his face and crying out in apparent agony after being bumped in the chest by Mexico midfielder Joahan Rodriguez.

Mexico took the lead on a 57th-minute give-and-go between Borgetti and central midfielder Gerardo Torrado, freeing Torrado for a left-footed strike that beat Cevallos from just outside the penalty area.

For the rest of the match, with Tenorio running rampant, Mexico retreated into pile-the-sandbags mode. For Mexico, the last 10 minutes were so unnerving, Aguirre brought on a fresh midfielder, Gabriel Caballero, for the last four minutes and added an extra defender, Sigifredo Mercado, for the last 60 seconds.

"We did sweat a lot," Aguirre said. "It was a serious match, it was what we had hoped for. But it did turn into an uphill struggle."

From here, the climb for Mexico only gets steeper. Waiting for the Mexicans in Oita will be an angry Italian team desperate for three points.

"I hope that Mexico plays its best match of the World Cup against Italy," Aguirre said. "We have to be very clever, very patient, very strong, very confident."

And very lucky. But when it comes to Mexico and this World Cup, that goes without saying.

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