It may have taken a little ref magic, some near-fisticuffs and a few cleaning crews as garbage flew down on the Georgia Dome turf, but Mexico is heading to the Gold Cup final.
Andres Guardado scored twice on penalty kicks, including once in extra time, as Mexico pulled out a controversial 2-1 victory over Panama on Wednesday evening.
Panama, which was down to 10 men for nearly the entire match after Luis Tejada drew a red card in the 25th minute, came within minutes of pulling off the upset. A Roman Torres goal in the 57th minute combined with an anemic Mexico attack to put the crowd favorites' backs against the wall.
Luckily, a fortuitous penalty call set the stage for Guardado's first goal to send the match to extra time.
In the 88th minute, a darting Carlos Esquivel attempted to receive a pass only to be held off by Panama defender Torres. As he attempted to clear the ball, he and Esquivel fell to the ground, with Torres falling on top of the ball. The referee called Torres for a handball inside the box, giving Mexico a penalty shot.
What followed was all-out pandemonium.
As fans tossed garbage onto the pitch in protest, multiple fights had to be broken up—at times even involving Panamanian teammates. Coaching staffs were on the pitch and were seen exchanging heated conversations with players. The situation never turned as ugly as it could have, but it took referees more than 10 minutes to sort the situation out and resume play.
Guardado knocked home his first goal immediately after the break, and the two sides played out an extended injury time to send the match to an extra 30 minutes.
It did not take long for Mexico to again find itself in the right place at the right time. Attempting to corral a pass in the 105th minute, Javier Orozco was met by two Panama defenders and tripped to the ground. Harold Cummings wound up being officially called for the foul, which was far less controversial than the handball at the end of regulation but nonetheless frustrating for the Panamanians.
Sports Illustrated's Planet Futbol made a salient point:
Given the chance to come through again, Guardado was true on another penalty to give Mexico a 2-1 lead. Down a man and obviously exhausted after using their substitutions, Panama's effort petered out down the stretch. At a number of instances it looked as if Mexico would stretch the lead to 3-1, though the attack never came through.
Overall, Mexico held possession for 72 percent of the match despite having only one additional on-target shot. The Mexicans will look to continue the North American reign of dominance in the Gold Cup, when they take on Jamaica, which shocked the United States earlier Wednesday night.
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“Every match is difficult,” Mexico midfielder Jonathan dos Santos said before the match, per Kyle McCarthy of Fox Sports. “They require attention on the small details. We have to stay focused, defend well, be strong and take the opportunities we have."
Mexico will walk into the championship as clear favorites over Jamaica. Either Mexico or the United States has won 11 of the 12 previous Gold Cups, with Canada having won the other (in 2000).
Jamaica has never come through on the Gold Cup stage and has rarely even come close. This will be its first Gold Cup final in history. The Jamaicans' previous best finish was a tie for third place in 1993.
After the vulnerability Mexico showed Wednesday night, however, another upset isn't entirely out of the question.