it was a horrible night for El Tri in Ekaterinburg, but Juan Carlos Osorio’s side lives to fight another day in Russia
It all seemed so simple.
Mexico needed to get a point against Sweden and win the group. Sure, after wins against Germany and Korea, it would’ve been nice for manager Juan Carlos Osorio to be able to make big changes and rest some regulars. He did the opposite. The change-happy manager went with the same team that won the second game.
Mexico went into the halftime break feeling good. After a nervous opening 10 minutes, which saw left back Jesus Gallardo issued the fastest booking in World Cup history, things settled down. For the final 10 minutes of the half, it looked like Mexico would score.
The break did little to ward away that feeling. El Tri came out looking for the goal that would give it some breathing room. At one point shortly after play restarted, the Mexico attack was working with all 10 field players in the attacking half, so little threat Sweden seemed to pose to the Mexico goal.
A slow-developing play in the 50th minute changed it all. After a mishit by Viktor Claesson, the ball fell to an unmarked Ludwig Augustinsson whose shot deflected off Guillermo Ochoa’s hand and in for the goal that changed everything.
With Mexico looking to get back level, things got even worse. With El Tri too far up the field, Sweden was able to hit back, and Hector Moreno was whistled for a penalty just after the hour mark. Andreas Granqvist stepped up and fired a perfect shot past Ochoa to extend the lead for the European side. A dozen minutes later, with Sweden on another of its rare trips forward, 20-year-old right back Edson Alvarez lost track of his feet and ended up putting a benign cross past Ochoa.
“I have to say that we qualified because we beat Germany and Korea. However, and nevertheless, I am very hurt,” Osorio said after the match. “I think that for the first time in many, many games, when we played against a team that played that idea of football, direct football, we usually play with three in the back plus an anchor man that is very good in the air. Basically we defend with four.
“Today for the first time I decided to play with four but not in that structure. At the end, we didn’t succeed in our penetration in the last third. That’s number one factor why we didn’t score. Second, we allowed them to score three goals, which I think is too many.”
Then Sweden, the tall, strong defenders that they are, packed in the box. Carlos Vela sending a header wide in the 80th minute just about summed it all up. Mexico was in control of the play, it had Sweden’s defense all but beat and still couldn’t put a ball into the net. The draw was off the table. Mexico needed to get a goal, maybe two to move into the knockout stages if Germany scored. It didn’t. Korea did. Twice
It all worked out in the end.
The entire Ekaterinburg Arena erupted in cheers as news of Korea’s late goal against Germany spread through the stands. Sweden fans celebrated winning the group while Mexican fans tossed their beers in the air. Some no doubt quietly removed the tickets to the round of 16 match in Samara they had listed on StubHub.
“We learned about it like everybody, I think, on the field,” goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said after the game. “You could see the fans were happy because they scored a goal there.”
With far more anxiety and worry than anyone ever would have anticipated, Mexico ended up second place in the group. Just like everyone thought it would before the tournament.
Now, Osorio has the difficult task of getting his players ready for a round of 16 game – one in which Mexico will be looking to make history and advance to the quarterfinals for the first time on foreign soil – that likely comes against Brazil. For now, he can just thank the heavens – and Korea – that Mexico is there at all.