HOUSTON -- The undefeated streak continues. The doubts do too.
New record: 22 matches unbeaten.
New record: nine changes to the El Tri lineup.
The streak remains intact, yes, but it comes on the heels of an unconvincing draw: Mexico 1-1 Venezuela.
It was a night of contrasts before a mostly pro-Mexico crowd of 67,000 fans, who endured a roller coaster of a ride from start to finish. They saw their team dominated by Venezuela at first, only to surge later on in a dramatic, intense, erratic and hysterical finish.
Venezuela dominated. It's not coach Rafael Dudamel's style or pedigree that has changed this team -- La Vinotinto is a squad determined to succeed, and at times their players are stronger, more skillful and more committed than their opponents. It's no fluke they're in the quarterfinals. Fortune smiles upon players who believe.
Mexico achieved its primary goal: avoiding Argentina in the quarterfinals. They will watch La Albiceleste from the comfort of their living room. Now, Venezuela has to start studying the mysteries of Lionel Messi.
And while Jesus "Tecatito" Corona was the hero on the scoreboard, goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona was the other hero on the night, coming up with big saves when Mexico needed him most. The Jesus Corona duo.
Making order of a mess
Just three minutes into the match, a timid Javier Aquino is taken down by Alexander Gonzalez, who gets booked. Completely invisible from this point on, Aquino will come off in the 18th minute, to be replaced by Tecatito.
Meanwhile, Mexico nervously pushes forward in an effort to gain control of the game, but the first shot arrives in the eighth minute in the form of a Venezuelan corner kick. Keeper Corona pulls it out of the air while surrounded by eight members of the opposition attack.
In the 10th minute, the chaos, poor marking and nerves of the Mexican defense are put on full display as Jose Velazquez nails home a splendid scissor-kick to give Venezuela the 1-0 lead. That's right, a set piece, Mexico's Achilles' heel.
Was this the first time that Juan Carlo Osorio's men had ever faced adversity? Was it time to see what they were really made of? They had 80 minutes to prove themselves.
The team reacts, but more on impulse than with any organization. Venezuela tightens its lines of four and plays counterattacking football by the books. Two set pieces result in poor finishes from Hirving Lozano (head and foot), and in the 34th minute, another header is directed off target -- this time from Tecatito, who barely disturbs Venezuela keeper Daniel Hernandez.
In the 38th minute, following a Hector Moreno header, referee Yadel Martinez -- who has thus far had an easy day at the office -- ignores a clear handball in the Venezuelan penalty area as Wilker Angel jumps up with an outstretched hand.
Mexico rides out the first-half, pressing hard with no clear rhyme or reason, pushing and shoving, spurred on by desperation. Their disorganization is reflected in the score: Mexico 0-1 Venezuela.
Tactical shake up
For Osorio, Miguel Layun is the obvious answer, who comes on for Jorge Torres Nilo and generates the best chance of the night down the right flank. Rolf Feltscher's desperate clearance is enough to deter Oribe Peralta from striking it home.
Stronger, faster and more committed, the Venezuelans steal passes and win loose balls, and when it's time to recover, they can and do get back to play defense. Mexico is playing with fire, and they could get burned.
Tecatito and Layun each have a strike, but neither of them poses a threat to Venezuela's keeper. Regardless, they're the best hope for a Mexico team that continues to create chances but can't find a way to put the ball in the back of the net. Andres Guardado is nowhere to be found.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez enters the match and the crowd goes wild. It's Osorio's last sub, his last chance at changing the mark. Jesus Molina is the man to make an exit.
It's all or nothing. Do or die. "Chicharo, Chicharo," the crowd cheers. Is it a cheer or a plea?
The goal defies the Bayer Leverkusen star right off the bat; In the 70th minute, Mexico is awarded a free kick from the right side. The cross comes in and it's on target. It's impeccable. There's no one to block it. It simply can't get any better. The moment of glory has come. Chicharito's jump is perfect, but the ball bounces off his left shoulder. False alarm.
Destiny offers another chance in the 74th minute. Reyes and Herrera each have a strike in quick succession inside the opposition box. Hernandez makes two huge saves. Mexico is on the prowl but so far unable to capitalize.
Rafael Dudamel decides to find out whether his forwards are the problem. Is it them, or is Mexico's keeper Corona the real deal? Alejandro Guerra, who has gone quiet, lets Salomon Rondon occupy his place on the pitch.
In the 78th minute, Tecatito leads the charge again. He cuts inside from the left flank, zigzags, ditches his marks, fakes, brakes, cuts and shoots, but his shot goes wide to the left of the goal.
But he will have another chance. In the 80th minute, Tecatito makes a diagonal run inside. Determined, he dribbles forward through a sea of opponents and into the penalty box, makes one last left-right fake, and fires the ball past the helpless keeper. His ego is the sin of salvation: Mexico 1-1 Venezuela.
The suffering isn't over yet; A fantastic bicycle kick from Josef Martinez requires an equally superb save from Corona, who shields the goal from further Venezuelan attacks.
Final score: Mexico 1-1 Venezuela. Mexico were at their best in the final minutes and finally looked organized. Venezuela, however, had to settle for a draw after standout performances from the Jesus Corona duo.