Cuba have overcome defections, visa issues and a 6-0 thumping from Mexico to qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-finals with a win against Guatemala.
A diving header from Maykel Reyes with 17 minutes remaining saw Cuba triumph 1-0 in Charlotte, with coach Raul Gonzalez leading his country to an unprecedented second-straight quarter-final berth.
Gonzalez and a host of players had failed to arrive in the United States in time for Cuba’s opening Group C fixture against Mexico due to visa problems, while the squad has been plagued by reports of defections.
But despite entering Wednesday’s match at the Bank of America Stadium without a goal or a point, Reyes’ 73rd-minute strike saw the Caribbean nation advance into the knockout stage at the Gold Cup.
The goal was set up by a brilliant diagonal pass from striker Ariel Martinez, who picked out Alberto Gomez on the left-hand side of the box and the winger teed up Reyes at the near post.
While Guatemala had penalty appeals turned down either side of half-time, the Central Americans should have few complaints, as Cuba dominated the second half.
A win would have seen either side progress, with the victory taking Cuba to three points and above Guatemala (1) into third in Group C’s standings, and Gonzalez’s team will now face co-hosts USA in a quarter-final on Saturday.
At the 2013 Gold Cup, Cuba got out of their group only to lose 6-1 to eventual finalists Panama.
Guatemala started the ‘sudden death’ encounter much sharper with Cuba goalkeeper Diosvelis Guerra acrobatically tipping a header over the bar, while Carlos Mejia shot straight at the gloveman soon after.
Mejia appeared to have a decent shout for a penalty ignored in the 23rd minute as he squeezed between two opponents on the edge of the box and was tripped, but the referee was not interested.
Cuba’s Martinez then fired a warning shot at Paulo Motta’s goal, with the Guatemalan keeper scrambling to watch a direct free-kick flash past his left-hand post, before Jorge Aparicio wasted two decent opportunities just before half-time.
Whatever Gonzalez told his players at the interval worked as they started the second period full of vigour.
The lively Martinez got free in the box but was unable to direct his header on target, before Motta had to parry a powerful shot from Andy Vaquero.
Martinez then beat his opponent on the right-hand touchline in the 72nd minute, before surging forward but Reyes could not stretch his neck enough to turn the 29-year-old’s cross on target.
But just a minute later Reyes made no mistake, getting ahead of Motta at the near post to nod Gomez’s cross into the net.
The goal inevitably inspired Guatemala to attack and Cuba had to survive half-hearted shouts for handball in the penalty area, while in the 79th minute, Ivan Sopegno’s men had the ball in the net only for the referee to whistle for a foul in the lead-up as the minnows held on for victory.
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