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May 28, 2014

Mexico cruise in Blanco's swan song

The past and the future of the Mexican national team existed together in happy harmony and all seemed right with the El Tri world in a 3-0 win over Israel on Wednesday.

It was a party atmosphere in Azteca Stadium right from the kickoff, as the crowds gathered early to see one of the most beloved icons in the history of Mexico, Cuauhtemoc Blanco. While it's true that to a certain extent, the decision to honor Blanco at this particular match was a shrewd marketing move to build up the crowd in the cavernous venue, it also felt right in many ways.

- FC TV: Farewell to an El Tri legend

- Report: Mexico 3-1 Israel -- Layun scores twice

There's no one quite like Blanco in the current squad. Pugnacious, prolific and possessed of great skill on the ball, Blanco harkens back to a grittier era of the game. He could do it all, free kicks, dribble runs, bending crosses and corners, and like the song famously says, he did it all his way, with 10-yard run-ups and bunny hops.

The public responded to Blanco partly because he was such a rebel and didn't care about convention. That's not a bad attitude to rub off on a squad accused only last year of being timid and lacking heart.

Far from being a disruptive force, it was clear soon after kickoff that the players on the squad were meshing well with the 41-year-old. Not only was Blanco, who still plays professionally, keeping up with the match, he was also creating attacking plays with clever, accurate passes. Scheduled to participate for half an hour, he continued on for a few minutes past that. It's probable that, like the crowd, El Tri coach Miguel Herrera held out the substitution for a bit longer, hoping that Blanco would be involved in a goal. Yet that didn't happen while Blanco was on the field, though Mexico controlled the ball well against Israel and had the majority of the run of play.

Still the spirit of Blanco and his tendency to tee off on the ball with great success seemed to inspire the opening goal. In the 43rd minute, Miguel Layun, who is counted on mostly to assist with great crosses, picked up his head outside the box after receiving a pass from Andres Guardado. Layun took the initiative and struck a curving shot into the side netting of the goal.

Layun wasn't finished yet. Perhaps playing in the home stadium for his club team encouraged him to keep attacking. In the 62nd minute, he took a chance on a shot that was perhaps more audacious, because it was further out. Israel's goalkeeper Ariel Harush managed to block the shot with one hand, but it spun into the goal after the bounce.

A sequence only two minutes later was sadly indicative of how Mexico can be it's own worst enemy. Goalkeeper Jesus Corona came out to clear a ball and collided with his own defender, Francisco 'Maza' Rodriguez, taking a knee to the head. Corona crumpled to the ground and though he opened his eyes and seemed aware as the medical team checked him out, he was carried off the field and to a local hospital for a thorough evaluation.

Guillermo Ochoa took Corona's place in the net and did an able job when called to make a few saves.

The final highlight of the match came courtesy of Marco Fabian, who one-timed a ball coming at him with deadly accuracy to rocket past Harush and into the net. The goalkeeper may have had a legitimate complaint that he was impeded in his efforts to make a save by Javier Hernandez, but the referee upheld the goal as valid.

The crowd had already been singing "Cielito Lindo" for about 20 minutes when the final goal was scored, so the joyful atmosphere was only heightened after Fabian's goal.

The only damper on the spirits of El Tri fans might have been the nagging thought that perhaps Israel had been the perfect guests for this send-off match, but perhaps far from the ideal preparation for the challenge that will be presented by World Cup teams.

Though the injury of Corona will no doubt concern some, most Mexico fans have complete faith in Ochoa. If needed, a switch at goal will trouble only die-hard fans of the Cruz Azul goalkeeper.

In sum, it was a night for fans to sing and be glad, to honor the legend of three previous World Cups, and to wish the current heroes venturing out to Brazil the very best.