Mexico’s on-again, off-again relationship with Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa is now officially on again.
The veteran goalkeeper, who came up big as a somewhat surprise starter for head coach Miguel Herrera in El Tri’s World Cup-opening 1-0 win Friday against Cameroon, turned in a heroic, Man-of-the-Match performance in their scoreless draw Tuesday against Brazil. Ochoa made six saves, none bigger than a diving effort on a Neymar header in the 26th.
It’s being dubbed as the save of the World Cup so far.
“To do it in a World Cup against the host and keep it clean sheet is not easy,” Ochoa told Univision immediately following the match at Estadio Castelão in Fortaleza. “Thank God things worked out. I'm happy because we never gave up and we have to keep working and we have go keep going. This continues, I'm going to enjoy it with my teammates and my family.”
Ochoa’s status as Mexico savior against Brazil almost never happened at all, with many figuring Herrera would go with the more veteran option of Cruz Azul ‘keeper Jesús Corona as the No. 1. But the 28-year-old Ochoa, who has had some shaky national-team performances, exacerbated by the 2011 Gold Cup doping scandal, ultimately got the call.
“We decided that Memo is someone that we saw calmer, much more with tranquility,” Herrera told Univision postgame, “not because the others didn’t have the soundness, but we saw Memo as slightly above the other two and that’s why we decided to have Memo as the goalkeeper to kick off the World Cup.
"And we haven’t been mistaken. … It seems to be that Memo has lived up to it, as we thought, with that attitude.”
Ochoa, now a free agent after three seasons with France’s Ajaccio, followed up his save on Neymar’s header by denying the Brazilian playmaker again in the 69th minute with a reaction save on a left-footed blast. And he preserved his second consecutive clean sheet in the 86th minute on another quick reaction, parrying away a Thiago Silva corner-kick header.
“We knew it was going to be a very difficult match,” Ochoa said. “The team showed defensive solidity once again, and it’s a good point for us and we leave happy because we made a good step.”
And after a shaky CONCACAF qualifying road, which came down to a playoff against New Zealand, Mexico are now sitting pretty tied with Brazil with four points atop Group A with a final group match against Croatia coming up June 23 (1 pm ET; ESPN). And playing the host country, whom many consider the favorite to win it all, and holding the likes of Neymar & Co. withouth a single goal is yet another confidence-building step for Mexico, Herrera said.
“We played a great game against a big rival in front of its people, in its stadium, in its country and [Mexico] showed what it's here for: to go toe-to-toe with whomever,” El Tri’s coach said. “They had chances and so did we. We had shots from outside. I think it was an even game back and forth. Obviously they have the support of their fans but the team showed we're ready to compete against anyone.”
That almost happened without Ochoa, who didn’t hesitate when asked if he had just turned in the match of his life.
“I think so, without a doubt,” he said.