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Mexico finally join World Cup party but suffer heartbreak despite Saudi Arabia win

 (AP)
(AP)

Where had this Mexico been? After putrid attacking displays to draw 0-0 with Poland and lose 2-0 to Argentina, the vibrant, exciting version of El Tri that we’re so used to seeing at World Cups finally turned up. Sadly for them, it proved to be just too little too late.

Perhaps we should never have doubted that Mexico would show up when it mattered most - they had reached the knockout stages at their last eight World Cups, after all. Yet as those who had the misfortune to witness their first two matches in this group can attest, there were few signs that the 2022 version of Mexico were capable of this performance. The men in green were irresistible, yet it ultimately wasn’t enough.

On this evidence, they could have given France a real game in the last 16, although their expertise in getting out of the groups has only been matched by their ability to fall at the first knockout hurdle. Seven straight defeats at that stage would have been a hard record to overcome. Not that it matters now - they gave themselves a mountain to climb and while they got within view of the summit, it is Poland who snuck through ahead of them on goal difference despite their own 2-0 defeat to Argentina. And given the performances to this point, Mexico can’t feel too hard done by.

Ahead of the game, the talk was that Tata Martino will be fired as Mexico coach following the conclusion of this tournament. He’s always been popular with the Mexican Federation but less so with the fans - the fact he’s an Argentine coaching Mexico not helping but the main bugbear being a negative approach that led to a disjointed World Cup qualifying campaign and saw them barely fire a shot in their opening two matches in Qatar. There are even rumours that veteran midfielder Andres Guardado is the de facto coach this tournament, although that notion seems a little more fanciful. If the Martino era is ending then it’s hard to argue that it’s an undeserved fate but his final salvo did pose the tantalising question – what could have been if Mexico had done this from the off?

In a not dissimilar fashion to Wales, the Mexican fans had far outshone their players all tournament long and again they created a cauldron at Lusail Stadium with the roar before kick-off as loud as any over the past 10 days. For the first time though, they were rewarded by their players showing some attacking intent from the off. Their wingers ran Saudi Arabia’s high defensive line ragged, they got balls into the box and they were a menace from set-pieces - the free-kicks of Luis Chavez in particular.

Perhaps it was unsurprising given their need for goals to stand any chance of qualifying and the fact they brought attack-minded Henry Martin and Orbelin Pineda into the side by necessity, but it was still heartening to see Chavez shoot narrowly wide, Alexis Vega burst through one on one – albeit finding himself denied by a good Mohammed Al-Owais save – and Jesus Gallardo whip a stunning cross into a dangerous area that caused some sense of panic in the Saudi backline, all within the first 10 minutes.

The interminable wait for that elusive first goal of the tournament stretched on though and the frustration grew. El Tri dominated but Chavez and Pineda saw shots deflect wide, Gallardo volleyed over and Saudi Arabia made it to half-time unscathed – somehow.

Their luck finally turned early in the second half as Martin bundled in from close range at a corner and, buoyed by the breakthrough, Mexico poured forward in search of more goals, showing an enterprising edge that had been so noticeably lacking until now.

Henry Martin bundled home Mexico’s opener (REUTERS)
Henry Martin bundled home Mexico’s opener (REUTERS)

1-0 quickly became 2-0 as Chavez thundered home a free-kick from downtown Doha that both defied belief and created belief. It was becoming increasingly clear - Mexico could actually do this. When Julian Alvarez made it 2-0 to Argentina against Poland, another goal for either the Mexicans or the homeland of their coach Martino would be enough to send El Tri into the knockouts.

But heartbreak lay in store. Another pair of Chavez free-kicks were clawed away by Mohammed Al-Owais, Hirving Lozano and Uriel Antuna had goals ruled out for offside and other chances went begging. For a while, a third goal felt inevitable - both at Lusail Stadium and across the country at Stadium 974 for Argentina - but as opportunities came and went, the pendulum swung towards Poland.

For their part, Saudi Arabia had offered little. It was slightly surprising from a side that provided the moment of the early days of this World Cup with their shock 2-1 win over Argentina and then more than played their part in a madcap 2-0 defeat to Poland that was one of the under-rated best games of the tournament. But they looked spent - unable to salvage a result that could have sent them into the last 16 or the first time since 1994. Fittingly, Salem Al-Dawsari - the man who created history with his mesmerising winner against Lionel Messi and co - did get an injury-time consolation but even then, Mexico still only needed a goal.

However, it wasn’t to be. Mexico were left thinking what might have been and their proud record of World Cup knockout appearances came to an end. In some ways, they only had themselves to blame but it still felt cruel. As they prepare to host the tournament in 2026, there are lessons to be learned and this final, scintillating salvo may just provide the template.