Mexico did everything right in the first half of Thursday's 2022 World Cup qualifier against Jamaica -- or at least, they appeared to. They had a significant amount of possession, more shots, and won the ball back quickly from the Reggae Boyz. They even had more players on the pitch as, right before the half-time whistle, Jamaica's Damion Lowe picked up a red card. All that was missing was a goal, and yet it wasn't El Tri who ended up scoring first.
A poor defensive clearance from a corner in the 50th minute set Jamaica up perfectly for an unexpected lead as Preston North End's Daniel Johnson pounced on the ball in the 18-yard box and sneaked it past Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa into the net.
Arms raised in the air, Jamaica's interim manager Paul Hall celebrated the goal that had his side defying the odds against the CONCACAF giants. Nearby, Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino nervously opened a bottle of water and took a sip, likely wondering if he would become the first coach to lead Mexico to three consecutive defeats in World Cup qualifying matches.
Already under pressure after losing to the United States and Canada last November, Martino knew he couldn't risk another defeat and threw his players even higher up the pitch to try and grab an equaliser. Midfielder Hector Herrera, who looked like an NFL quarterback with his long range of passing, began to move the ball more vertically in the hopes of salvaging something.
Mexico started to play like they had in the first half again -- with possession and with plenty of touches in the final third -- but they also struggled when it came to the decisive final pass or shot. Once again, without the injured Raul Jimenez, backup striker Rogelio Funes Mori didn't do much to win over those who have criticised his lack of international goals; Uriel Antuna, lively but imprecise on the right wing, was sporadic; on the left wing, Alexis Vega was too quiet before ramping up his efforts late on.
Like so many CONCACAF opponents, Jamaica happily sat back and let Mexico try to find a way past their cautious low block. In these moments, El Tri require proactive game-changers, and without Jimenez or the suspended Hirving "Chucky" Lozano, there were doubts as to whether Martino would be able to figure it out. Luckily for the coach, and for nervous Mexico fans that were preparing to fire off tweets about the long-term absences of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Carlos Vela, there were answers on the bench.
Diego Lainez, brought on in the 51st minute, was an attacking catalyst with his rapid movement and direct running that opened up space. In the 71st minute, more reinforcements arrived with the introduction of Gerardo Arteaga, Henry Martin and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. While Tecatito, who was particularly impressive, took some much-needed risks with his creativity and dribbling on the right flank, Martin linked well up front as an immediate upgrade on Funes Mori.
By the 81st minute, Mexico found their equalizer through a collective effort from Tecatito, Martin and Vega. Tecatito launched a dangerous cross to Vega, who then headed the ball towards the net; Jamaica goalkeeper Andre Blake did well to stop the effort but after it deflected off the woodwork, Martin was able to push the ball in from close range to make it 1-1.
The winner then came two minutes later. With Tecatito once again leading the charge, the new Sevilla player dished the ball out to Carlos "Charly" Rodriguez in the 18-yard box, who quickly sent a low cross over to an unmarked Vega. With little time to waste, the 24-year-old rocketed a shot past Blake that secured the dramatic 2-1 victory.
While Mexico only narrowly avoided a potential crisis, what mattered most is that they found a way to win in the end. For Martino, there were some big challenges to overcome: Alongside Jimenez's injury and Lozano's suspension, both Cesar Montes and Osvaldo Rodriguez were ruled out due to positive COVID-19 cases and, after traveling back to North America from abroad, a few European-based players were also rested for the busy three-game stretch.
Which isn't to say that Martino would have been forgiven if Mexico had lost. The questions that emerged on Thursday about El Tri's efficiency in the final third were legitimate as Mexico racked up their xG number but without an actual goal to their name. Luckily, the answers arrived off the bench and the trio have all made a case for themselves for more prominent roles in Mexico's next two games.
Barring Jimenez being fully fit, Martin deserves a chance in the XI after being a highly impactful sub; Lainez, in spite of his lack of minutes with Real Betis, was thrilling to watch and clearly had a point to prove; while, emboldened by his transfer to LaLiga, Tecatito looked five years younger after he stepped on the field.
The larger context of making the right tactical choices is also worth bringing up. In the losses to the United States and Canada, Martino was justifiably critiqued for his second half substitutions and tactical tweaks that weren't enough to avoid defeats. For all of the scrutiny that he has received from Mexico's last couple of matches, the former Barcelona and Atlanta United coach got it right on Thursday.
With those three points, Martino and El Tri can breathe a sigh of relief for the time being in the knowledge that their chances of qualifying for Qatar 2022 have become much stronger ahead of games against Costa Rica on Jan. 30 and Panama on Feb. 2.