DOHA, Qatar – Nearly three months after his last competitive Premier League fixture and less than a week after returning from a friendly for the national team, Mexican striker Raul Jiménez has taken to the pitch at the 2022 World Cup.
Coming on as a 71st-minute substitute in Tuesday’s group stage game against Poland, the 31-year-old Wolverhampton Wanderers striker roamed the opposition’s half, desperate to create opportunities to hit Mexico for the first time since March.
That goal-scoring moment in Qatar’s No. 974 Stadium, almost filled with 39,000-odd spectators, most of whom strongly cheered for Three — never came for Jimenez or his teammates.
Try as he might, the veteran, unsurprisingly, resembled a player who had been out of competitive matches for months due to a groin injury. Although his linking game was promising and he was a good distributor, his pace was a step slower than most. Due to his limited time on the pitch, he also did not have the opportunity to even record a shot in the match against Poland, which ended up in a 0-0 draw.
Still, there was a sense of considerable relief when Mexico’s best striker returned to the field.
Not only because of what he represents for the national team – a figure so unusual that he is the only El Tri member with a separate name on a World Cup shirt – but also because it is a small miracle that he returned to the field. . in Qatar after a previous setback in 2020 that jeopardized his career.
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‘Unfair’ criticism after a long road to recovery
When Mexico takes on Argentina (November 26) in their second World Cup match, the meeting will take place shortly before the two-year anniversary of Jimenez’s serious head injury that will change his life forever. During Wolves’ game against Arsenal on 29 November 2020, the striker collapsed and was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery after a brutal headbutt with defender David Luiz.
The mid-air collision fractured Jimenez’s skull. He had to be stretched off the field, had internal bleeding and faced the possibility of long-term brain damage.
Jimenez will not return to the field for eight months before a friendly for Wolves in the summer of 2021. He wore a headband to protect his head, progress has been gradual over the past year or so, with additional injury setbacks in 2022 that included a knee problem and his latest groin sprain.
Absent since August, the striker unofficially returned for a brief cameo for Mexico in a 2-1 friendly loss to Sweden last week. Due to the lack of a goal and a poor first touch in his new appearance, the media and fans lashed out at Jimenez’s performance, turning scathing attention to the recovering player who was reportedly selected for the World Cup in place of up-and-coming Feyenoord striker Santiago Jimenez. compound.
Before the Poland game, teammate Guillermo Ochoa defended Jiménez’s game.
“Raul, I see in him the desire, the ambition, the hunger and the zeal to play,” Ochoa said. “The desire to return to that level, to return to play football as Raul demonstrated after what happened to his head, is an example for everyone.”
“I saw him play very well in training, I saw him work on additional things,” he added.
Ochoa also garnered critical backlash for a short video that went viral of Jimenez appearing to be struggling while training in Qatar.
“It’s unfair to him a lot of times because they make a five second video and say he’s not okay. They don’t even have any necessary information to report what actually happened. It’s sad,” Ochoa said.
Raúl’s return sparks joy in Mexico, but fails to score
Thankfully, that negativity seemed to dissipate once Mexico started the game against Poland. Perhaps thanks to Saudi Arabia’s shocking 2-1 result earlier in the day over Argentina, word was in the air that anything was possible in Group C of the World Cup. When Jiménez eventually appeared in the second half, his name was announced to rapturous applause.
Neither side scored a single goal, but with some heroism from Ochoa in his dramatic second-half penalty save against Robert Lewandowski, there was an unexpected optimism in those in the stands that just saw Mexico earn a vital point.
And despite the sweet moments of Jimenez’s return to the competition or Ochoa’s trademark performance in the big game, the theme remains the same – someone has to find the back of the net for El Tri.
Against Poland, Mexico played the way they usually play in 2022: lots of possession, slow buildup, but once in the last third…nothing.
“In the World Cup with national teams of the same level, what is undoubtedly needed is to be more efficient in order to be able to complete the few scoring chances that are given in the game,” said Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. after the game. “We didn’t take advantage of the three scoring chances we had.”
Starting forward Henry Martin had a fairly average game but failed to make the most of his significant time on the field. Along with him, winger Alexis Vega failed to capitalize on his chances.
“Obviously we are worried about not being able to score a goal. There were different moments, and we could not finish the game, we need to give a little more and be more decisive in this tournament, ”said Vega.
Tata has a tough task ahead in Messi, Argentina
Jimenez is an important part of the attacking process, which looks unsettling when he is unavailable. Mexico won’t be entirely dependent on a Wolves player, but it’s no coincidence that the national team’s momentum has begun to slow since his latest injury streak.
After a promising start to Martino’s managerial era in 2019 and 2020, which included a CONCACAF Gold Cup title, the absence of Jimenez and a very gradual return to full fitness completely put the coach out of the 4-3-3 formation as he struggled to find a suitable replacement for position #9.
There were other factors such as COVID-19 bringing the football world to a sudden halt, but within 13 months Mexico failed to win the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League and the 2021 Gold Cup and they also went four games in a row without a win. against their US rivals. World Cup qualification was exhausting for Martineau’s team, who eventually earned a place in Qatar, but thanks to numerous wins and low points draws.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jimenez has yet to score and the chances of winning against Argentina remain low, who will be too eager to bounce back from the loss to Saudi Arabia.
Getting a good result against an embarrassed Argentina can be a miracle in itself. But the same can be said for Jimenez, who returned to the field and played at the highest level almost two years before the day he almost died.