If Mexico had taken care of business in its final group-stage game with Sweden, it would be facing Switzerland in the round of 16 this week, safely tucked in the softer side of the World Cup bracket alongside Russia, Denmark and Colombia.
Instead, it will play in the elimination round Monday against Brazil, a team it hasn’t beaten in more than six years — and one it has never bettered in a World Cup.
Yet for captain Andres Guardado, it’s the ideal matchup.
“What better motivation can there be other than the fact that we’re facing the game of our lives against a five-time champion?” Guardado said Friday, in Mexico’s final news conference before leaving Moscow for the 90-minute flight to Samara.
“Internally we’ve said amongst ourselves that this is the perfect scenario.”
It’s also a chance to make history. Mexico is playing in the knockout round for a seventh consecutive World Cup; only Brazil has a longer active streak. But while Brazil has won two titles during that time, Mexico hasn’t won a game in the second round since 1986. And it has never won a World Cup elimination game outside Mexico.
Still, coach Juan Carlos Osorio agrees with Guardado that Brazil may actually be the perfect opponent for his team.
“Going against Brazil, that will be a difficult thing,” he said. “[But] I have come to the conclusion that the Mexican players compete better against teams that historically are better, or have achieved more, rather than competing against teams or nations that have not won anything.”
Mexico already proved that here, beating defending champion Germany in its opener. That followed with a win over South Korea before running around against Sweden, which frustrated Mexico by conceding possession and playing defensively with as many as nine men behind the ball.
That won’t be a problem against Brazil. The South Americans, led by Neymar (one goal, one assist) and Philippe Coutinho (two goals, one assist) are one of the few teams in Russia that can run with the fast-breaking Mexicans. Injuries have plagued Brazil, however, and the team may be without left back Marcelo, who was forced out of the group-stage finale with Serbia after 10 minutes because of back spasms.
Guardado said he will ask officials to keep an eye on Neymar, who drew a tournament-leading 17 fouls in the group stage and has a reputation for embellishing fouls.
“We all know Neymar,” he said. “It’s not up to me or us to judge, but the referees and FIFA. Now they have VAR [video assistant referees], they have to watch his style of play and the referee needs to be on top of it because we know he likes to exaggerate fouls. He likes to drop to the floor a lot.”
Mexico was led in the first round by Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela on offense, while keeper Guillermo Ochoa was outstanding in goal, leading the tournament with 17 saves. But El Tri will be without center back Hector Moreno, who must sit out the game with a yellow-card suspension. And after the 3-0 loss to Sweden, the team’s most-lopsided defeat in a year, Mexico is one of two teams that advanced to the knockout round with a negative goal differential.
Guardado doesn’t see any of that as a problem either.
“What makes me calm is that I think we’re all ready to play,” he said.
“You learn more from the defeats than the victories because you want to reduce all the bad things from that game. The game against Sweden taught us a lot of lessons.”
One lesson no player has to be taught, however, is the importance of winning the fourth game in a World Cup. Only five players on this year’s team were even alive the last time Mexico did that.
“We’d never beaten Germany in a World Cup either, and we did it in this one,” Guardado said. “We’re here to make history, and it is in our hands.