Two games into the World Cup, Mexico is unbeaten, leads its group and has its fate firmly in its grasp.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who scored the second of his team’s two goals in Saturday’s 2-1 win over South Korea at Rostov-on-Don, believes the hard work is just beginning. While Mexico is off to its fastest start in a World Cup since 2002, that guarantees nothing going into the final day of group play.
“We have to be very calm. There is a lot of noise outside,” he said. “The results are good, but everything is a trap. We can’t get carried away.”
Mexico will advance to the knockout round as the group champion with a win or tie against Sweden on Wednesday, no matter what Germany does in the other group-play finale against South Korea. While there are other combinations of results that could produce the same outcome, and all four in the group are still alive to advance, Hernandez prefers to keep it simple.
“Tomorrow, we have to think about Sweden, try to win the group, that is the most important thing,” he said in Spanish. “We are climbing the ladder. We are taking it step by step.”
For Mexico, getting through the group stage is only the first step; the team hasn’t exited a World Cup in the first round since 1978. But it hasn’t won a game in the second round since 1986, the last time it reached the quarterfinals.
Mexico has never won a knockout-round game outside its country, but that’s something Hernandez believes this team can do.
“You have to imagine bad-ass things,” he said. “I want to accomplish many things for my country.”
Captain Andres Guardado echoed that thought.
“It is useless if we win three games and we lose in the round of 16,” he said. “We have to show that this team wants to accomplish great things.”
Playing in the southern port city, Mexico opened the scoring in the 26th minute when Carlos Vela converted a penalty kick awarded after Jang Hyun-Soo was called for a hand ball in the penalty area.
Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, doubled the lead midway through the second half, finishing a counter for the 50th goal of his international career.
The sequence started with Mexico winning the ball back midway into its own end. The ball bounced out to Hirving Lozano, who dashed across the midfield stripe on a 3-on-2 break with Hernandez and Vela on his flanks.
After a long run up the center of the pitch, Lozano sent the ball ahead for Hernandez in the 18-yard box and when Jang rushed over to challenge, Hernandez pulled the ball back with his left foot, allowing the Korean defender to slide by, then sent an right-footed shot into the back of the net.
Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa had another brilliant effort, making five saves before Son Heung-min scored in injury time. South Korea committed a tournament-high 24 fouls and drew four yellow cards in the game. The Koreans committed 23 fouls in their opening loss to Sweden.
Two wins in two games means only a change of focus for Mexico. Germany and South Korea are gone; now it’s time to think about Sweden and the next task at hand.
“Our objective is to win the group,” Guardado said. “We are doing different things than in the past.”