x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mexico and US book finals places

Round-up Mexico sweep aside El Salvador 4-1 to book their ticket as the US win 3-2 in Honduras.

Mexico's Carlos Salcido celebrates after his teammate Cuauhtemoc Blanco scores against El Salvador.
Mexico's Carlos Salcido celebrates after his teammate Cuauhtemoc Blanco scores against El Salvador.

MIAMI // Mexico cruised into the World Cup finals and the United States battled their way to a spot in South Africa in Concacaf qualifying on Saturday, leaving Costa Rica and Honduras to scrap it out for the third automatic place. Mexico, inspired by 36-year-old Cuauhtemoc Blanco, crushed El Salvador 4-1 in front of more than 100,000 fans at the Azteca stadium. The United States, who trailed 1-0 in Honduras, had an unlikely match-winner in forward Conor Casey, who struck twice as Bob Bradley's team came from behind to win 3-2 at Honduras.

Honduras striker Carlos Pavon had a night to forget as he blasted an 87th-minute penalty over the bar then minutes later headed wide from a great position. Honduras face the possibility of finishing fourth and having to play off against the fifth-placed team in South America, currently Uruguay, after Costa Rica moved into the third automatic spot with a 4-0 rout of eliminated Trinidad and Tobago.

With one round of games to go, the United States lead on 19 points, with Mexico on 18, Costa Rica on 15 and Honduras on 13. In Wednesday's final matches, Costa Rica face the United States in Washington DC while Honduras must travel to El Salvador in a fixture that will evoke memories of their 1969 qualifier. That game, and the political issues surrounding the two countries at the time, led to an armed conflict between them known as "The Football War".

Honduras, who have a better goal difference than Costa Rica, must win in San Salvador and hope that Costa Rica fail to pick up three points in the United States. Mexico have no need for calculators after completing their turnaround after three defeats from their opening four qualifiers. The decision to replace Sven-Goran Eriksson after three qualifiers with Javier Aguirre has been justified with a tremendous run-in of five wins in a row.

The latest win came after an own goal from El Salvador defender Marvin Gonzalez gave the Mexicans a one-goal lead at the break before Blanco, a pre-match injury doubt, turned on the style. The forward made it 2-0 by finishing off a beautiful flowing move then substitute Francisco Palencia made it 3-0 with a fierce strike in the 84th minute. A rocket free-kick from Julio Martinez pulled one back for El Salvador but Mexico restored their three-goal advantage a minute from the end through Carlos Vela.

Honduras were on top in the first half in a red-hot atmosphere in San Pedro Sula and got their reward a minute after the break through a superb free-kick from Julio Cesar de Leon. However, they were stunned by three goals in 17 minutes from the United States. First Casey, surprisingly chosen to start by Bradley, headed an equaliser when he outjumped goalkeeper Noel Valladares after Charlie Davies had flicked on a long ball.

Then Landon Donovan split the Honduran defence and Casey showed a cool touch to convert, before a Donovan free-kick made it 3-1. Honduras got back into the game through a close-range effort from De Leon in the 79th minute, but Pavon wasted a golden chance to earn a point when he blasted a penalty high over Tim Howard's crossbar. Costa Rica, who had lost their last three games, had no trouble against bottom-placed Trinidad, Alvaro Saborio scoring twice in a comfortable win at the Saprissa stadium. *Reuters