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Mexico’s offense finally comes to life, but it’s not enough to stay alive at World Cup

Mexico's Kevin Alvarez reacts after the World Cup group C soccer match against Saudi Arabia.
Mexico’s Kevin Alvarez and teammates react after the World Cup match against Saudi Arabia.
(Manu Fernandez / Associated Press)
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For 2½ games Mexico did nothing in this World Cup — no goals, no wins and, seemingly, no chance to advance to the round of 16, something it had done in every World Cup it has played in since 1978.

What there was no shortage of entering Wednesday’s group-play final was grit, determination and hope despite those long odds. And that nearly carried Mexico through before two second-half offside calls erased a crucial third goal and eliminated El Tri despite its 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia.

“We had to give everything,” said Mexican captain Memo Ochoa. “Obviously, the objective was not to finish in this round. Today, the team competed, it ran, it created opportunities. It’s a pity. They responded today and gave it all they had.”

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Mexico started the game last in its four-team group, needing a win and a miracle. It got the first and nearly got the second.

To finish in the top two in the table and earn a spot in the next round, Mexico had to catch or pass either Argentina or Poland on points and make up a significant deficit in goal differential, the first tiebreaker. It got started on that just after the intermission when Henry Martín and Luis Chávez scored goals just five minutes apart.

Martín’s came off a Chávez corner to the near post for César Montes, who headed the ball into the center of the box for Martín, who nudged it home with his left boot in the 47th minute. That snapped a 431-minute goalless drought for Mexico in World Cup play, dating to the second game of group play in 2018.

Mexico fails to advance out of the group stage for the first time since 1978 despite 2-1 win on Wednesday. By virtue of goal differential, Poland reaches the Round of 16.

Mexico’s first goal in Qatar came on its 29th shot; it needed just one more shot to get another with Chávez bending a free kick just under the crossbar and into the side netting in the 52nd minute. In the other game, Argentina had taken a 2-0 lead over Poland, leaving Mexico and Poland even.

If Polish keeper Wojciech Szczęsny hadn’t saved a Lionel Messi penalty kick in the first half of their match, Mexico would have been ahead in the group standings.

But it wasn’t. In fact, it actually trailed since the second tiebreaker is fair play and there Poland had an advantage, having drawn two fewer yellow cards than Mexico in the first two games. To overcome that, Mexico needed a third goal — and El Tri thought it had one twice. On the first occasion, a pass from Martín set up Hirving Lozano for a shot into the bottom left corner, but what would have been a third goal in nine minutes and a 3-0 lead was erased when Martín was ruled to be offside.

Mexico's Uriel Antuna reacts after being called offside on a goal attempt late in the match against Saudi Arabia
Mexico’s Uriel Antuna reacts after being called offside on a goal attempt late in the match against Saudi Arabia on Nov. 30 in Lusail, Qatar.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

The second, in the 87th minute, was even more painful since time was running out. On that one, a perfectly timed run, left Uriel Antuna with only Saudi keeper Mohammed Alowais to beat, which he did. But Antuna, too, was offside.

In between, Mexico applied unrelenting pressure, taking 26 shots in the game — the most in a World Cup match for El Tri since 1970 — and testing Alowais 11 times. But the Saudi keeper stopped Lozano twice and the Mexican sent another dangerous chance over the crossbar. Martín missed twice, once high and once wide, and Chávez also sent a shot over the crossbar.

Christian Pulisic scores the decisive goal in the 38th minute but is injured on the play as the United States defeats Iran to advance at the World Cup.

That left El Tri desperate and that desperation left it open to a counterattack, something Saudi Arabia finally took advantage of when Salem Aldawsari scored five minutes into stoppage time, driving a stake through Mexico’s still-beating heart and ending its World Cup.

Afterward, embattled coach Tata Martino opened another contentious session with the Mexican media by taking the blame for the results.

Mexico supporters react after the World Cup Group C soccer match against Saudi Arabia.
Mexico supporters react after the World Cup Group C soccer match against Saudi Arabia. El Tri won the match but did not advance to the knockout round.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

“I am the one most responsible for this terrible disappointment and frustration. I fully assume responsibility for this failure,” said Martino, whose contract with the federation ended when the game did. “Today was the best game we played. But we failed.”

Chávez disagreed, saying the players deserve their share of the blame as well.

“Obviously, we are the one who are playing,” he said. “We had all the hope of qualifying and in the end we didn’t. Beyond the personal, I’m leaving very sad.”


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