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Group Therapy Good for Mexico

June 14, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OITA, Japan — Now that this World Cup has stretched believability to the breaking point, with France and Argentina already gone and Italy nearly run out of the tournament by Mexico, Javier Aguirre was asked if he could allow himself to "dream" a moment and imagine how far his overachieving Mexican squad might be able to take this fantastic voyage.

Aguirre shook his head and stomped his right foot, and then his left, loudly on the floor.

"I won't allow myself to dream," Aguirre said after watching his team outrun, outwork and outplay Italy en route to a 1-1 tie Thursday at Oita's Big Eye Stadium.

"I'm a realist. I have two feet firmly on the ground."

All right then, how about this potential reality, considered a pipe dream when both teams first stepped on Asian soil three weeks ago--a second-round matchup against border rival the United States?

Aguirre's face lighted up with a wide smile.

"I'd love to play the U.S.," he said. "They beat us the last time we played. We have a great rivalry with them. It would be a great thing for the whole CONCACAF region."

Mexico versus the U.S. in the knockout phase of a World Cup?

It is closer to happening than not. Mexico, in a memorable performance against three-time World Cup champion Italy, has done its part--clinching first place in Group G and a trip to Jeonju, South Korea, for a second-round matchup Monday against the second-place finisher in Group D.

Heading into today's last set of Group D matches, the U.S. was in second place. If the Americans can hold that position--they play Poland and group leader South Korea faces Portugal--Mexico would be their next opponent.

Worth noting, Yanks: This is a drastically different Mexico team from the one that lost to the U.S., 1-0, in an exhibition match in Denver in early April. In fact, this is a drastically different Mexico team from the one that scuffled to a 1-0 victory over Croatia in its World Cup opener 11 days ago.

Aguirre didn't quite get the "perfect game" he said Mexico needed against Italy. But the resilience, cohesion and tenacity his team displayed, against an Italy squad desperate to avoid elimination, rank Thursday's effort among the most impressive in Mexico's World Cup history.

Mexico was five minutes from its first victory over Italy, with Italian fans nervously scoreboard-watching to track how Croatia was faring against Ecuador, when second-half substitutes Vincenzo Montella and Alessandro Del Piero combined on a cross-and-header that spared Italy the indignity of losing successive group games and having to squeak into the next round on goal differential.

Without Del Piero's goal, Italy would have advanced, barely, because Croatia lost to Ecuador in Yokohama, Japan, 1-0, keeping Italy ahead on tiebreakers. The draw made qualification a certainty.

In Italy's camp, there's always something. And more fuel for the FIFA-conspiracy fire was ladled up when the Italians had another goal controversially disallowed--after two being nullified in the 2-1 loss to Croatia--when Filippo Inzaghi's 14th-minute strike appeared to be incorrectly ruled offside.

Francesco Totti missed an open net five minutes later and Mexico, having withstood Italy's initial barrage, began to play its way into a rhythm, despite numerous stoppages for Italian fouls, Italian yellow cards (five in all) and Mexican players being carried off after ugly collisions.

Amid such bitter tactics, Mexico lifted the game's level in the 34th minute when Cuauhtemoc Blanco freed himself just long enough to fire in a left-sided cross for Jared Borgetti, whose glancing header carried over the reach of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and nestled inside the far post.

Borgetti's header was Mexico's first shot on goal, one of two for his team in the match. Italy outshot Mexico, 13-8, with five shots on goal, but was repeatedly frustrated by Mexico's agile goalkeeper Oscar Perez and a disciplined defense led by captain Rafael Marquez, who has emerged as one of the top defenders in this tournament.

Desperate, Italy Coach Giovanni Trapattoni sent on three reserves in the second half, with Del Piero replacing Totti in the 77th minute. His goal eight minutes later didn't technically save Italy from elimination--Ecuador took care of that--but at the time, the result of the Croatia-Ecuador match was still uncertain.

Knowing that a tie would send Italy through, and clinch first place for Mexico, both teams turned the remaining minutes into a half-comical, half-sad exercise in running out the clock. Mexico dropped into a virtual four-corners offense, knocking the ball around the back, while Italy made no effort to pressure the ball.

Marquez called it "a great day for Mexico. We have advanced to the next round and we should hold our composure. This is just the first step to the top."

That next step could be shared by an old neighbor. Mexico, against fairly long odds, has done its part. Now, the ball is on the Americans' side of field.

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