Guillermo Ochoa adds to his World Cup legend with a penalty save against Poland

The noise was deafening. The moment was euphoric. Guillermo Ochoa’s 58th minute penalty save from Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski had kept Mexico in a manageable position at the World Cup.

The match ended 0-0 and Ochoa’s legendary status as a World Cup icon was cemented in front of a raucous pro-Mexico crowd.

Ochoa has a history of big performances on the biggest stage. His heroics at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where he faced 14 shots from the host country in the group stage and made six saves, first established Ochoa as a popular tournament figure. He was instrumental in Mexico’s upset win over Germany four years ago in Russia, and on Tuesday night, Ochoa’s superstar performance proved just how valuable he still is for El Tri at 37.

On the eve of the Group C match, Poland’s goalkeeper, Juventus’ Wojciech Szczesny praised Ochoa for his past tournament exploits.

“I’ve seen many of his performances at the World Cup and he was always a genius,” Szczesny said. “I remember 2014. It was a great tournament for him. I hope he has to pick out many more balls than I do.”

The draw with Poland was a cagey affair. Ochoa was hardly tested but one moment can thrust a player into tournament folklore. It came in the 54th minute, when Mexico defender Hector Moreno tussled with Lewandowski inside the penalty area. Play continued for nearly two minutes before Australian Chris Beath was summoned to the VAR screen.

Beath ruled that Moreno had pulled Lewandowski down with a visible shirt tug.

The Poland fans who had been massively outnumbered and silenced erupted in cheer. Lewandowski would have a golden opportunity to score his first goal at a World Cup. He stood a short distance from the ball as the screeching sound of thousands of whistling Mexican fans filled the desert air.

Four minutes had passed since the foul. Lewandowski did not pause as he typically does during his run up, which allowed Ochoa to make a reflex save to his left. After the match Ochoa’s teammates paid tribute to their veteran goalkeeper.

“(The save) gave us a boost,” said midfielder Carlos Rodriguez. “We know that he’s a great shot stopper. We know how great a leader he is and he showed it again.”

“We know that Memo is all about big moments. He’s shown that at every World Cup and has done it again,” striker Henry Martin said.

Defender Jorge Sanchez and Martin have played with Ochoa at Liga MX side Club America. They know Ochoa well and have come to expect great things from their goalkeeper over the years.

Sanchez, now with Ajax, called Ochoa, whose nickname is “Memo,” a hero. “When we need Memo he always shows up, whether it’s with the national team or with America,” he said.

Sanchez told reporters that the Mexican players had not tried to rattle Lewandowski before the penalty kick. However, he was almost certain that Ochoa had said something to the Barcelona striker.

(Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

“I don’t know what he said,” said Sanchez. “It was all Memo. Him saving that penalty was so important for us to be able to rescue a point.”

“Memo is a top goalkeeper,” forward Alexis Vega said. “It’s easy to say that he’s been to five World Cups, but behind all of that is a lot of discipline and hard work. You can see that in crucial moments. He saved a penalty. He’s a goalkeeper who gives us a lot of confidence.”

“Wow, it was incredible, wasn’t it,” Mexico winger Uriel Antuna said when asked to describe the moment after Ochoa’s save. “He shows up in the biggest moments as a captain should.”

Ochoa told reporters that he and fellow goalkeepers Alfredo Talavera and Rodolfo Cota had studied Lewandowski’s penalty kicks and rehearsed their methods.

“It’s always difficult, when you watch video of Lewandowski’s penalties,” Ochoa said. “You watch 15-20 penalties, you never know which side to choose. I’m glad that I saved the penalty. He’s a great striker. I’m happy to have kept the clean sheet.”

Szczęsny made four saves on the night and, like Ochoa, helped his team earn a valuable point. Asked if the goalkeepers had been the heroes on the night, Szezesny removed himself from the equation.

“Their goalkeeper definitely was,” Szezesny said. “He made a great save from a penalty kick. He has a history of being unbelievable at the World Cup, so unfortunately for us, he kept that going. I congratulate him because he made an unbelievable save.”

Asked if Lewandowski had chosen his preferred side when he fired a low shot to Ochoa’s left, Szczęsny laughed and said “I’m not going to tell you his favorite side.”

“He didn’t watch the goalkeeper,” he continued. “Usually (Lewandowski) watches the movement of the goalkeeper. Today he decided to choose a corner.”

Just as a taker can overthink their penalty, so can a keeper with their attempt to make the save. In both cases, this often leads to awkward, sometimes even dramatic movements during the approach to the ball, throwing off the timing, and the accuracy of the strike or save.

In theory, big and dramatic movements — arm-waving, jumping around — before the strike makes sense from the goalkeeper. You are using those movements as an attempt to visually distract the taker and create a moment of hesitation or doubt during their run-up.

It rarely has any impact and more often than not ends up being a distraction for the goalkeeper. It often leads to the goalkeeper setting late, or not at all, and losing their balance as the taker speeds up their approach to the ball.

Ask any taker what is more intimidating in penalty-kick situations: a goalkeeper who is flapping about or one who calmly stands as big and focused as they can before the shot. Almost all of them will say the latter.

Before Lewandowski’s miss he had a penalty success rate of roughly 90 percent. He’s gained a reputation as a penalty specialist because his approach is so effective.

He waits for the goalkeeper to move before he chooses a side and hides his decision until the last possible moment. As the goalkeeper, if you go too early, you risk Lewandowski just slotting the ball to the opposite side of the goal, wait too long and you usually don’t have enough in your dive to catch up to the accuracy and power of his strike . Therefore, it is incredibly important for the goalkeeper to remain still and get your timing exactly correct down to the smallest details. Without it, you have no chance.

The challenge of facing a player with the quality of Lewandowski boils down to patience. You will be telling yourself to wait, wait and keep waiting, then find the perfect time to start your movements. Then you have to take your own step right before the shot to generate power, while timing his approach. Normally you’re waiting for the plant foot to hit the ground before you make your own move but it’s one of the hardest things to do.

Ochoa was cool and composed while avoiding any premature movements, and remained balanced and patient in his approach.

What was also interesting about Ochoa’s approach was his set position in goal. One of the tricks that goalkeepers can use is to get set slightly off center — like Ochoa did here.

You essentially concede one side of the goal, making the side of the goal that you prefer to dive to slightly bigger. It is not significant enough that the taker will notice, but it is enough that that side of the goal will appear bigger and play psychological tricks on their mind.

Notice how Ochoa is slightly off center and closer to his right post, showing more to his left side (the side he wants to dive to) than his right.

Since the odds are significantly in the shooter’s favor during penalties, even more so for someone like Lewandowski, every little bit that can help the goalkeeper turn the odds in their favor can often make the difference between a save being made vs a goal being scored.

As Lewandowski made his approach, Ochoa stayed still. It wasn’t until Lewandowski was about to make contact with the ball that Ochoa made his move.

Ochoa took a quick step to his right, knowing Lewandowski would be watching his every move, before quickly changing direction and launching himself to his left. Essentially Ochoa did his best to force Lewandowski into a decision and this time it worked wonders. Although it was his first penalty save at a World Cup, this was his 17th of his career, and may just turn out to be his most important.

Rather than console Lewandowski after the match, Szczesny left his captain alone.

“I let him relax. There’s no point,” Szczesny said. “I’m sure he’s disappointed about missing a penalty so I try not to get involved in explaining to him, talking to him. We wouldn’t have been at this tournament if it wasn’t for him.”

Ochoa was the hero, but Mexico let slip a huge opportunity to position themselves at the top of Group C. Argentina’s shock loss to Saudi Arabia had opened the door for Mexico or Poland to challenge the Saudis for the top spot. The draw was bittersweet. Once again, a solid performance was wasted, as Mexico failed to convert in front of goal.

Up next is a wounded Argentina team that Mexico has not beaten in two World Cup matches. A win for Mexico would eliminate Argentina. If Mexico’s fans can once again be a positive force on Saturday, that may not be as unlikely as once thought.

“We killed ourselves on every play so that the fans would continue to scream and continue to build that connection that we have with them,” Sanchez said.

“They’re going to see a different Mexico. A Mexico that’s going to dictate the game and challenge every play. We hope to give them and our families joy. They’ve gone through a lot in order to be here. I’m happy with the performance. Argentina’s next and they’re a very difficult opponent.”

(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)


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