By Samindra Kunti in New Jersey
July 4 – On a sticky and neurotic night in Harrison, Carlos Meija delivered the killer blow in the 76th minute for Guatemala to complete Guatemala’s 3-2 comeback and ensure his team’s passage from Group D to the quarterfinals of the Gold Cupfor the first time since 2011.
At the final whistle, they ran to hug goalkeeper Nicholas Hagen, coach Luis Tena pumped his fists and the supporters in the stands partied like never before – Guatemala were back in the knockout phase of the Gold Cup for the first time in 12 years after a match in which they had frayed nerves, given blood, sweat, and tears to see off a valiant Guadeloupe.
The two teams served up a contest that was absorbing from start to finish.
Guadeloupe were not overwhelmed by the cauldron of noise and tumult that Los Chapines supporters created at a packed Red Bull Arena in Harrison. Instead, they were steadfast in the face of so much pressure and had the first sight of a goal in the 8th minute, but Jordan Leborgne scuffed his shot.
Andreaw Gravillon’s attempt was met by a spectacular save from Guatemala goalkeeper Hagen, but the action in Hagen’s box reflected the match’s balance of power with Guadeloupe seizing control.
Guatemala manager Luis Tena bellowed his players to move higher up the pitch, but they struggled to string together a meaningful attack.
On the left channel, Matthias Phaeton created havoc in the Guatemalan defence and the legs of Hagen prevented the opening goal, but in the 27th minute, Gravillon powered the ball into the net from the ensuing corner kick, 1-0. It was a deserved lead for a team that was simply better, even if coach Jocelyn Angloma had insisted they were the underdogs.
But as poor as Guatemala were, they got their goal shortly before half-time with their first attempt on target, main marksman Rubio Mendez steering a glancing header past Davy Rouyard in the 39th minute to equalize.
At the break, Guadeloupe, Guatemala and Canada, leading Cuba 2-0, all had five points but Tena’s team were on the way home because of an inferior goal difference.
With the onus on his eleven, Tena changed his midfield substituting Saravia and Castellanos in a bid to wrestle back control, but those hopes were temporarily dashed when Ange-Freddy Plumain converted a 63rd-minute penalty. The spot kick had been mired in chaos following a lengthy VAR review and a Guatemalan fan invading the pitch, meaning it took five minutes before the number eight could step up. Fans then pelted the celebrating players from Guadeloupe with plastic beer cups before the PA demanded discriminatory chants stop.
Guatemala seemed rattled, but it was the inevitable Mendez who brought his team back into the match, tapping in his second goal in the 70th minute following a slick attack on the right channel.
Cue pandemonium in Harrison and the momentum had swung the way of the Central Americans. Five minutes later, Meija delivered salvation with a strike from the edge of the box, prompting delirious scenes around the Red Bull Arena.
But Guatemala were not home and dry yet. Guadeloupe were awarded a second penalty and this time Hagen turned the hero diving to his right to save the spot kick from Phaeton. Cue more mayhem.
Every action favourable to Guatemala was now being celebrated like a goal. In injury time, Steve Solvet was sent off for a second yellow card, but dismissal was a footnote in a match that had been utterly nail-biting. Les Gwada Boys are out, Guatemala will face Jamaica in the quarter-finals in Cincinnati.
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