DOHA, Qatar (AP) — With a post-game hug, Robert Lewandowski paid respect where it was due. Guillermo Ochoa had done it again at the World Cup.
Mexico's stalwart goalkeeper stopped Lewandowski, one of the game's best strikers, on a second-half penalty kick that preserved a scoreless draw between El Tri and Poland.
A loss in the match would have dealt a blow to Mexico's bid for an eighth straight trip to the World Cup's knockout rounds. Ochoa, 37, is making his fifth consecutive appearance in soccer's biggest tournament, joining an exclusive club that includes Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But it wasn't the first time the seemingly ageless goalkeeper with unruly hair had come up big in the World Cup.
Back in 2014, the player widely known by his nickname Memo, made six saves in the scoreless draw with Brazil, which was among the favorites as the tournament’s host.
He denied Brazilian stars Neymar and Thiago Silva on close-in headers and afterward called it the “game of a lifetime.”
In Russia four years ago, he had nine saves in Mexico's 1-0 victory over defending champion Germany in the group opener.
“When we need Memo, he always shows up,” defender Jorge Sanchez said.
Qatar could be Ochoa's final World Cup and he desperately wants to advance past the round of 16 and play in an elusive “quinto partido” — a fifth game. It's something that has eluded El Tri since Mexico hosted the 1986 tournament.
“There have been great players in history who never had a chance to play at a World Cup, so for me to have the chance to play five is wonderful, amazing,” Ochoa said. “But, of course, I want this World Cup to be very different and to be the best of all time for Mexico.”
Within moments after Tuesday's draw, memes spread on social media depicting Ochoa as a brick wall, Superman, Neo in the Matrix movies and even Jesus.
But Ochoa, who plays for Club América in Mexico's Liga MX, pointed afterward to preparation, not heroics.
“We work on that these two weeks, or maybe a month, with goalkeeper coach Gustavo Pinero. But it's always difficult when you watch the video of Lewandowski's penalties, it's complicated because you watch more than 15 to 20 penalties, so you never know which side to choose," Ochoa said. "At the end I'm happy to save the penalty. He's a great striker.”
Ochoa started his career with Club América at 18 and played there for seven years before bouncing around Europe with teams in France, Spain and Belgium. He wound up back with Club América in 2019.
While the opener ended in a draw, the save helped — at least momentarily — to quiet the critics who have questioned the team's form and blasted coach Gerardo Martino for his roster choices.
Mexico finished second in CONCACAF qualifying behind Canada — and ahead of the United States. But the team dropped three of its five tune-up matches heading into he World Cup.
On Saturday at Lusail Stadium El Tri faces Messi and Argentina, who unexpectedly fell 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in their opener. La Albiceleste remain one of the favorites at the tournament despite the loss.
“We have a tough opponent in the next game, but Mexico is also a tough opponent,” Ochoa said. “We've worked really hard. We've prepared ourselves.”
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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press