By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jun 27, 2018) US Soccer Players - Perhaps Mexico does not do well as a favorite. Or maybe Mexico players were simply too overconfident. Whatever the case, Mexico came narrowly close to an embarrassing World Cup exit on Wednesday as only a greater embarrassment kept El Tri’s pulse beating.
Still, the damage is done. Mexico’s World Cup venture has gone a full 180 degrees in 90 minutes. Now, as the Round of 16 looms, there are plenty of reasons to think that Mexico’s same old World Cup tune of four games and out will be blaring once more, for the seventh consecutive time.
Mexico’s failure to build on previous results is what will ultimately keep them from progressing beyond the familiar Round of 16. Despite positive results from earlier matches, Mexico is the same as it ever was, capable of putting together strong outings but also prone to collapse. This team in its current form is suddenly suspect. It's that dark cloud that is likely to sink the team come Monday.
Mexico’s 3-0 loss to Sweden to close out the group stage was a rather unexpected result considering how Mexico had played in the first two games. The only thing that kept Mexico from taking a flight back home immediately after was Germany’s inexplicable implosion. The Germans fell by 2-0 to Korea, exiting the tournament, the first time in history that Germany failed to advance from the group stage.
Had Germany done what nearly the entire world expected, it would have been the Germans joining Sweden in the Round of 16 and Mexico would have been out.
Coming into Wednesday’s games though it was more likely that Mexico would at least secure a draw if not all three points from its game against Sweden. Mexico stunned Germany 1-0 in the opening game on June 17 and handled Korea 2-1 on Saturday. They hadn't booked passage to the knockout rounds because of results from the other Group F matches. No bother, because this new-look, confident and convincing Mexico side simply needed to keep playing the way it had been. There was no reason to believe otherwise. One or three points was sure to come.
Mexico’s play against Sweden was rather uncharacteristic, at least from what the team has shown not only this month but throughout World Cup qualifying. It was Sweden who came out aggressively and Mexico failed to match the Swedes’ intensity. It was Sweden who was better technically, tactically, and physically. It was Sweden who rose up to the moment and snatched all three points.
Mexico had done well not to make mistakes during the first two games. In game three, El Tri made several. Mexico, who was fortunate to not conceded a penalty kick in the first half on a disputed handball call, eventually gave away a penalty kick. Mexico also helped out Sweden with an own-goal. By the end, Mexico was chasing the game, desperate for anything positive.
Nothing did, at least for Mexico, but Mexican supporters in the stands at Ekaterinburg Arena celebrated nevertheless. Mexican flags waved and green-clad supporters jumped up and down when Korea scored in stoppage time of its game against Germany. The celebration continued when Korea added another late goal and closed out the Germans.
While the loss helped Mexico immensely, it also raised some questions and may have put a damper on Mexico’s earlier accomplishments. Germany after all looked just as dazed and lifeless against Korea as it did against Mexico. They showed little sense of urgency, seemingly relying on its superior technical ability to generate chances and help put a ball in the back of the net.
Germany could not do so against Mexico and also failed against Korea. While Mexico’s win over Germany was solid. Now, it looks like a win over a team that was essentially terminally ill, although nobody knew it at the time.
Mexico ends group play with an even bigger challenge ahead against Brazil. Mexico must answer some questions. First, the team will be missing defender Hector Moreno, who picked up a silly yellow card against Germany saw another on Wednesday.
Coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who undoubtedly will receive criticism for not having his team prepared to play against Sweden, will also likely face further critique. He'll be under scrutiny for how he fills out the lineup sheet for the Round of 16 tilt. With Moreno suspended, Osorio may very well turn back to Hugo Ayala, who started at center back against Germany but did not feature in either match since. Pairing Ayala with Carlos Salcedo seems logical as Edson Alvarez could continue to play at right back, despite his unfortunate own goal on Wednesday.
However, the front six was rather ineffective against Sweden. Mexico’s best opportunity came off a Sweden turnover early in the match, but Carlos Vela pushed a 20-yard shot just wide of the goal. Osorio may need to turn to his bench to give the team some life on the attack. He does have players such as Giovani Dos Santos, Raul Jimenez, and Oribe Peralta waiting for minutes.
Osorio also has deviated from his previous mannerisms by making minimal changes during this tournament. Osorio was always one for squad rotations, cycling players in and out of the starting lineup on a regular basis. In fact, the first time he has repeated a starting lineup in consecutive games happened on Wednesday when he sent out the same 11 against Sweden as he had against Korea.
Even though his critics never let him forget how much they all disapproved of that tactic, it may be a reason why the team’s magic appeared to have vanished.
Mexican players and coaches now must pick themselves off the floor and find a way to recover. Perhaps playing as an underdog again will help the team find some inspiration or motivation. Otherwise, it's going to be four and out at the World Cup once again.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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(Graphic courtesy of FIFA)