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 By Tom Marshall

Mexico lucky to escape Gold Cup semifinal with win over Panama

ATLANTA -- Mexico is in the Gold Cup final after overcoming 10-man Panama 2-1 following a controversial extra-time victory in the Georgia Dome on Wednesday night.

Andres Guardado netted the equalizer from the penalty spot deep into second-half injury time to take the game to extra time, and the captain scored a second penalty in the 113th minute for the winner. The first penalty, awarded against Panama's Roman Torres, was highly controversial.

Panama had gone down to 10 when Luis Tejada was sent off in the 25th minute.

El Tri will face Jamaica in the final in Philadelphia on Sunday, after the Reggae Boyz defeated the United States 2-1 earlier on Wednesday in the same venue.

1. Mexico gets away with it

El Tri can count itself very lucky to be in the final after a game that left a very sour taste in the mouth for a number of reasons. Over the 90 minutes, Panama had more shots on goal and more shots on target, despite playing the majority of the game with 10 men following Tejada's red card. That's a damning stat for Mexico and coach Miguel Herrera.

Roman Torres took advantage of one of Panama's chances in the 57th minute, when he beat Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez to a well-taken corner from Eric Davis to give Los Canaleros the lead. The Central American side defended doggedly for the rest of the game.

It was almost enough. But for a penalty call in the 88th minute for a dubious handball -- more on that below -- Mexico would be out of the Gold Cup, just like rivals United States. If that had been the case, Herrera & Co. could hardly complain.

Mexico lacked ideas going forward. Hector Herrera and Carlos Vela, in particular, were shadows of what they have shown consistently in Europe.

The lack of creation forced coach Herrera to throw on forwards, but it seemed more in the hope that something would stick than anything else. Mexico now hasn't scored a goal in open play in 240 minutes at this Gold Cup.

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Ironically, considering how it ended, the first 25 minutes of the game was a reminder of El Tri at its best and encapsulated what Herrera seems to want to see from his team. The passing was crisp and first-touch, the movement good and Mexico piled players in front of the ball, creating options and suffocating Panama.

But after Tejada was sent off, Panama began to sit back, and Mexico lost its intensity. It seems ridiculous to suggest it, but going down to 10 almost suited Los Canaleros. Mexico is adept at finding space where space is available; the problem is when teams shut up shop.

With 10 players, Panama coach Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez had no option but to do just that, and almost pulled off what would've been a famous result. Despite going out, this was a performance from Panama that has firmly put down a marker moving forward.

At halftime, Herrera took off Oswaldo Alanis for Carlos Esquivel and moved from his 5-3-2 to a 4-4-2, which was more like a 2-4-4 when Mexico had the ball. It was a bold move from a coach who has been under fire, but it didn't work.

Panama stuck to a game plan, while Mexico fumbled around for ideas. It should've been enough, but for some strange officiating.

2. Refereeing favors Mexico, ugly scenes ensue

El Tri certainly can't complain about referee Mark Geiger. Just as it benefited from a dubious late call to hand it a late penalty against Costa Rica in the quarterfinal, Mexico was given another penalty call in the 88th, when Torres was adjudged to have handballed in the penalty area.

TV replays showed the decision was controversial. Torres did his best to avoid touching the ball with his hand, and even the Mexico players didn't really appeal.

After the ref blew the whistle, chaos ensued. Panama players and coaching staff began fighting between each other, and then the mayhem moved over to the Mexico bench, with players from both teams involved. From the stands, beer cups cascaded down.

The scenes certainly didn't reflect well on Panama, Mexico or the tournament as a whole.

Luis Tejada argues with referee Mark Geiger.

Even aside from the penalty, the major decisions in the semifinal favored Mexico.

Tejada can't have any real complaints about his red, even if he and the rest of the Panamanian players were furious. He raised his arm to "Maza" Rodriguez and clearly caught him with his forearm. Some refs may not give that decision, but it was dangerous play by the letter of the law.

Panama had legitimate cause for complaint that the same punishment wasn't dished out to Vela in the fourth. The Real Sociedad striker -- who will miss the final after being booked for the incident -- was immature in clearly throwing an elbow into Anibal Godoy's chest while awaiting a corner.

As if to rub it in for Panama, Orozco was bundled over in the box in the 114th minute, and Guardado stepped up to stroke the ball in from the spot. Panamanian players sarcastically applauded the referee after Guardado had scored, and a group of Los Canaleros charged at the ref at the final whistle.

The old complaints that Mexico has been favored will continue. The wider point is that there is an inconsistency in the refereeing for all teams at the Gold Cup.

3. Mexico make unlikely final

It's been just one victory in normal time in the past 12 games for Mexico. The excuse at the Copa America was that the team didn't have its European-based stars, but at the Gold Cup, El Tri should've been much better than it has been.

Somehow, Mexico has made Sunday's final and will bid to win its seventh Gold Cup, moving further ahead of the United States' five.

Jamaica was excellent in knocking out the U.S. earlier on Wednesday, and feels its direct and physical style will give Mexico plenty of problems. After watching El Tri against Panama, the Jamaicans certainly won't be afraid.

The Reggae Boyz are strong, with players who can run at Mexico's defender, and they are not easy to break down. The United States was gifted their lone goal in their surprising loss.

Vela is out, midfielder Herrera is not firing, and coach "Piojo" Herrera will be facing criticism from the domestic media. But the bottom line is that by hook or by crook, Mexico is in the final.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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