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‘Memo’s save gave us life’: How Mexico’s Ochoa shut out Robert Lewandowski and Poland

When Robert Lewandowski retires, he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest players of his generation, a seven-time Bundesliga scoring champion and two-time FIFA world player of the year.

He’ll also be remembered for Tuesday.

If Memo Ochoa ever retires, which is by no means certain, he’ll be remembered as a steady club player who won a league championship in his first season as a starter and hasn’t done it again.

He’ll also be remembered for Tuesday.

With a World Cup game hanging in the balance, Ochoa rose to the occasion and Lewandowski did not, the Mexican goalkeeper making a spectacular save on the Polish captain’s penalty shot to preserve a 0-0 draw before a festive and overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd of 39,369 at Doha’s Stadium 974.

“Such things happen,” Polish coach Czesław Michniewicz said with a shrug. “Great players miss their penalties. “I sympathized with him. I know how a captain who misses a penalty feels. He was very emotional about it.”

“In the World Cup,” Ochoa answered, “there’s always surprises.”

Maybe. But what happened Tuesday wouldn’t qualify as a surprise because despite the differing trajectories of their careers, Ochoa has owned the World Cup and Lewandowski has not. Ochoa has made five trips to the tournament, starting nine games and making 47 saves. In those games, he was outstanding over 90 minutes. Against Poland his contribution lasted just seconds.

“Memo’s save,” midfielder Charly Rodríguez said, “gave us life.”

Lewandowski’s fleeting experience with the World Cup has been far less successful. Although he is Poland’s all-time leader in caps and goals and has taken the team to four consecutive European Championships, he’s played in just one previous World Cup — going scoreless for a team that finished last in its group.

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“I know how much he wanted to score a goal in the World Cup,” Michniewicz said.

Mexico wanted to score one too, and for much of the game it seemed just inches away from doing just that. If Mexico, which has the second-oldest roster in the tournament, is to go deep in this World Cup, it will need more than just the kind of big plays Ochoa turned in. It also will need to take advantage of its opportunities and it failed to do that against Poland, holding the ball for 54 of the 90 minutes and taking nearly twice as many shots but getting nothing to show for that domination.

Mexico was on the front foot from the start, playing its best game in at least a year, but it couldn’t finish. In the fifth minute, Alexis Vega misplayed Hirving “Chucky” Lozano’s cross from the right wing, knocking it wide of the far post. Seven minutes later Hector Moreno headed a Jesús Gallardo cross from the opposite side over the crossbar. In the 26th minute it was Vega again, nodding a Héctor Herrera feed inches wide of the post.

Mexico’s Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, center, battles for the ball with Poland’s Bartosz Bereszynski and Sebastian Szymanski during the World Cup Group C match at Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday.

(Aijaz Rahi / Associated Press)

And on it went, with Mexico failing to score in a third straight World Cup game, running its shutout streak to 294 minutes since Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s goal against South Korea in the second game of the group stage in Russia.

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“We lacked precision on goal, but we had a lot of intensity and control of the match,” Mexican coach Tata Martino said. “In a World Cup, you need to be effective on the scoring chances you have.”

All that nearly went out the window early in the second half after Moreno grabbed a handful of Lewandowski’s jersey and brought him down as the two battled for possession deep in the box. Referee Chris Beath allowed play to continue but at the next stoppage he took a look at a video replay and quickly awarded the penalty.

Ochoa said he’s been working on penalties with goalkeeper Gustavo Piñero but wasn’t sure it had done much good.

“It’s always difficult when you watch videos of penalties by Robert Lewandowski,” he said. “You watch more than 15, 20 penalties [but] you never know which side to choose.”

This time Ochoa appeared to deke the Polish captain, faking to his right then diving back hard to his left, smothering the shot.

“When he misses there is always the question ‘Why?’“ Michniewicz said. “Yesterday he trained on penalties and he never missed.”

Lewandowski did Tuesday, for the first time in his international career. And while Martino was happy with the save, the point it earned him and the little bit of momentum it will provide going into Saturday’s match with Lionel Messi and Argentina, he thought his team deserved more.

“We deserved to win,” he said.

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