Mexico faces early World Cup exit against Saudi Arabia
Mexico is going to have to suddenly find goals — and perhaps even several of them — to extend its knockout-round streak at the World Cup.
Mexico has reached the round of 16 at the last seven World Cups, tied for the longest current streak with Brazil. But in Qatar, El Tri sits at the bottom of Group C ahead of a must-win match against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday at Lusail Stadium.
The last time Mexico played at soccer's biggest tournament and didn't advance out of its group was in 1978.
But it's not quite as simple as winning: El Tri must also get help. They'll need Poland to beat Lionel Messi and Argentina at the exact same time at Stadium 974.
That's the easiest way forward for Mexico. Beyond that, it gets complicated. If Mexico does its job and wins but Argentina, one of the tournament's favorites, also wins, then goal difference comes into play.
The problem is, Mexico has no goals yet in Qatar.
In fact, El Tri hasn't scored in 384 straight minutes at the World Cup, dating back to their second group match at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
“We believe in our chances. We hold on to our chances," said veteran Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado, who is appearing in his fifth World Cup. “And obviously we will try until the very end.”
Mexico hasn't been eliminated from the group stage since the tournament in Argentina 44 years ago. El Tri didn't qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and was banned from the 1990 event in Italy for using overage players at an under-20 tournament.
Since then, Mexico has advanced to the round of 16 in its last seven appearances — but no further. El Tri came to Qatar looking to play in an elusive “quinto partido” — a fifth game — for the first time since Mexico hosted the tournament in 1986.
“In the next game we have no more chances,” Mexico forward Henry Martin said. “We have to score the goals that we can, and not worry what happens in the other game.”
With the lack of goals, the criticism of Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino grew. He had already been questioned over some of his choices, including his decision to leave all-time leading scorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez off the team.
Hernandez, who now plays for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, scored the team's last goal in a 2-1 group-stage victory over South Korea in Russia. LAFC forward Carlos Vela, who also fell out of favor in the national team, scored the other.
Martino could be looking for a new job if Mexico doesn’t advance after playing Saudi Arabia, a team that pulled off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets ever when it beat Argentina 2-1 in its opener.
“Not getting through would leave a lot of frustration," Martino said Tuesday. "We need the goals to win, that is what it takes to keep us here.”
Saudi Arabia couldn't pull off another upset Saturday when it fell to Poland 2-0. The Saudis reached the round of 16 back in 1994, the team's World Cup debut, but hasn't made it past the group stage since.
“We will play to the last second of this tournament and we will not give up,” Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard said.
Nawaf Al-Abed sustained an ankle injury against Poland and it was unclear if he would be available against Mexico.
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This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .