Mexico advances to World Cup knockout stages thanks to dramatic result elsewhere

All of Mexico breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday as El Tri dramatically advanced to the Round of 16 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in spite of a 3-0 loss to Sweden in their final group stage game.

A rare scenario had left open the possibility that Mexico could be eliminated in spite of winning two of its three games, a fate very rarely suffered by anybody in World Cup history.

At the last six World Cups, Mexico was eliminated in the fourth game, generating something of a national obsession about finally making it to the fifth – the quarterfinals – in Russia. Instead, El Tri were nearly eliminated in their third game, a stunning turn of events after they won their first two games. Nonetheless, they survived to face Brazil on Monday.

Second-half goals came from Ludwig Augustinsson, an Andreas Granqvist penalty and an Edson Alvarez own goal.

While Mexico survived Wednesday’s chaos – by virtue of Germany’s inability to find a winner against South Korea in an improbable late 2-0 loss, sending the defending world champions home early – the damage is nevertheless considerable. It has now been cast into the tougher half of the bracket and will have to beat the record five-time World Cup winning Brazilians in the next round. Mexico only needed a draw to win its group and position itself well for that dreaded fourth game.

This has been a curious World Cup. Both the star players and the star teams have had a hard time of it. A very late goal against Nigeria saved Lionel Messi’s Argentina from an ignominious group stage exit. And Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal survived a late scare against Iran. Spain’s progression to the Round of 16 was a labored slog, with two hard-fought ties and a 1-0 win. Germany’s World Cup very nearly ended in its second game, but for a 95th-minute winner over Sweden, before it was eliminated anyway. And Brazil’s relief was evident in Neymar’s tears when an injury-time winner against Costa Rica rescued its campaign.

And then there was Mexico.

Mexico’s Andres Guardado, left, and Sweden’s Albin Ekdal challenge for the ball during the group F match between Mexico and Sweden, at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Yekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg , Russia, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Mexico’s Andres Guardado, left, and Sweden’s Albin Ekdal challenge for the ball during the group F match between Mexico and Sweden, at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Yekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg , Russia, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

El Tri, once so desperately unlucky, and possibly cursed in its string of Round of 16 eliminations, but with its golden generation and its precocious young talent, was cruising. In spite of the perpetual pressure on its controversial coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, who seemed to be almost an enemy of the state for the ferocity of the criticism of his tactical tinkering. Yet his players believed in him deeply, even as the rest of the country did not.

Nevertheless, Mexico had been thriving in one of the toughest groups at the World Cup. It upset Germany with a tight 1-0 win. A solid 2-1 victory over South Korea wasn’t as close as the score suggested. Its final game seemed to be a matter of deciding whether it would win the group outright or not.

Instead, it was undone by Sweden’s counter-attacking approach, plunging the 25,000 or so Mexicans in Yekaterinburg into despair, and then into a relieved frenzy.

Predictably, Sweden made this a physical tussle, but Mexico matched its brawn and intensity.

Yet the Swedes, while claiming only a third of possession, threatened throughout the first half. Within the first five minutes, they had two free kicks in promising positions, the very thing Mexico needed to avoid.

But every time, there was Memo Ochoa, Mexico’s talismanic goalkeeper. He saved an Emil Forsberg rocket to his near post. And then Marcus Berg’s bicycle kick from just a few feet out went wide.

Mexico was very much on the back foot until Chicharito Hernandez teed up Carlos Vela at the top of the box, but he curled it only just wide of the far post.

Forsberg then had a wide-open look, but it was a tricky half-volley finish before Hernandez seemingly handled the ball in his own box while clearing it. The non-call was adjudicated by VAR, which seemed to pretty conclusively show that it was a penalty. But referee Nestor Pitana decided against it, because nobody knows what a penalty is anymore.

On the ensuing corner, Ochoa denied Berg point-blank again on the volley. And Berg smashed a shot into the side netting just before halftime.

In the first half, Mexico had been bending. In the second, it broke.

Just five minutes after the intermission, Viktor Claesson mishit a low cross, which looped to Ludwig Augustinsson at the far post. He laced it home on the volley. It was a flukey sort of goal, but those count too.

And on the hour, Hector Moreno took out Berg in the box. It was a rightful penalty, which Andreas Granqvist converted.

Things got worse in the 74th minute, when the ball took an unfortunate bounce off Edson Alvarez on a routine cross, trickling behind Ochoa.

Mexico struggled to produce chances. Hernandez headed a cross over and Vela couldn’t react fast enough to head home from point-blank range to score.

That left El Tri perilously close to elimination if Germany beat the South Koreans in Kazan, as it was expected to. But South Korea scored twice in injury time, and Mexico survived.

There will be a fourth game for Mexico after all.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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