Mexico miss out on last 16 on goal difference despite beating Saudi Arabia | World Cup 2022

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What a manic and heartbreaking evening for Mexico who finally came alive at a vibrant Lusail Stadium yet narrowly failed to pull off a Houdini act of escapology into the last 16.

Going into added time their higher yellow card count of seven to Poland’s five had them going out and though Salem al-Dawsari then scored, one more Mexico strike would still have put them through.

Gerardo Martino’s team had previously scored no goals at this World Cup yet 52 minutes in were 2-0 up and with the seconds ticking away had one last chance: Luis Chávez swept a free-kick into Saudi Arabia’s area and César Montes met it but no third goal followed and that was game over and time up on Mexico’s valiant effort.

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Towards the end Edson Álvarez had also crashed a shot towards Mohammed al-Owais’s goal but it hit a Saudi back. A 20-yard dart by the lively Hirving Lozano claimed a free-kick on the edge of Saudi Arabia’s area but Chávez belted it into the wall. Then, Uriel Antuna did find the Saudi net but this was ruled offside and Poland staggered through.

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Mexico had begun with Alexis Vega racing on to a through-pass and only the frame of Owais stopped an opener when the No 10 pulled the trigger.

The save from the Saudi keeper drew an ear-splitting cheer from the reported 60,000 Green Falcons fans inside and they soon sighed in collective relief. Jesús Gallardo’s cross from the left caused a mix-up as Owais flapped and Henry Martin – who scored Mexico’s first – went down when Hassan al-Tambakti challenged him.

If Michael Oliver was not interested in a penalty Mexico were bombarding those in white so raucous cheers greeted any offering of positive Saudi play. Those who had flooded in from the neighbouring nation to be at the match or in its vicinity – the count was around 150,000 – did this when Saud Abdulhamid raced through before being scythed down near Mexico’s D. Dawsari stood over the dead ball but Mohamed Kanno took charge and blazed high.

This was a precious chance wasted because from here Mexico pummelled the Saudis, who found the life squeezed out of them continually in their defensive third.

Mexico’s next threat came from a diving Orbelín Pineda header – he seemed to have slipped the ball beyond Owais but this proved an illusion and Saudi Arabia had escaped.

The pertinent question was how long they could keep Mexico out. Via Lozano on the right or Gallardo on the left, El Tri were in constant ready-to-receive mode from Héctor Moreno or Chávez and the Saudis’ only answer was to chase and scramble or spoil – Saleh al-Shehri and Ali al-Hassan each having their name written in Oliver’s book for fouls.

Henry Martin (centre) scores Mexico’s first goal against Saudi Arabia.
Henry Martin (centre) scores Mexico’s first goal but it was not enough to take them into the last 16. Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico’s fair impersonation of a potent team made the observer wonder why they had been so poor in their previous two outings in which they managed a solitary point.

A further opening arrived when Gallardo was allowed a free volley from a corner. He hoofed it over but the Mexican wave kept crashing over Saudi Arabia, Pineda seeing a deflection take his effort out for another corner.

The possession percentage count of 70-30 in Mexico’s favour illustrated their near-total dominance but a Firas al-Buraikan dash that sprung their defence, followed by a flying Hassan header, reminded them to remain watchful.

Where this Mexico had previously been was a mystery, though after five halves of play they still remained goalless and the unpopular Martino was, surely, 45 minutes from his unhappy tenure being ended.

“Tata’s” standing was evidenced in the boos that greeted his name going up on the big screens before kick-off. The coach’s crime was to oversee a toothless proposition that still seemed to be certainly heading for failure to reach the last 16.

A Chávez curving attempt beaten away by Owais at the start of the second half, though, suggested no let-up and, at last, Mexico struck. Their first goal of these championships was simple: Chávez this time directed a corner in from the left, Montes flicked on and Martín finished.

With Argentina beating Poland in the other game, goal difference was still stacked against Mexico progressing. But, next, Chávez thumbed a nose at the odds by sweeping home the sweetest free-kick from 30 yards that beat Owais to his left, the ball always bending away.

This had the Mexico replacements joining the celebrations and drew their team closer to the seemingly impossible. In a madcap passage Lozano scored what would have been their third and the one that would take them above Poland on goals scored but offside ruled it out.

When Argentina went 2-0 up against Poland this meant the Mexicans and Poles were tied on all criteria but fair play put the Europeans through.

Mexico continued to pepper Saudi Arabia but could not get over the line and claim a memorable victory. In the final analysis Martino has to answer why this performance only came this evening. He might also pay for it with his job.

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