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Ole! Ole! Ole!
For much of the second half, things were so comfortable for El Tri that their ample fan delegation in Russia was having fun. And after the torment of a nailbiting finale on Sunday, they were entitled to as much. And not even Son Heung-min’s stunner could change that, for it had come so deep in injury time that it was too late to ruin the party.
After defeating Germany, the highest-ranked team in Group F, 1-0 in its World Cup opener, Mexico also defeated the lowest-ranked team, South Korea, on Saturday, 2-01 El Tri’s perfect start to the tournament makes it the favorite to win its group, positioning it well to avoid Brazil in the round-of-16 and instead face a much more manageable Serbia or Switzerland.
In six straight World Cups, from 1994 through 2014, the Mexicans have been eliminated in the round-of-16, and our neighbors to the south are practically obsessed with finally reaching what they’ve dubbed “the fifth game.”
Carlos Vela’s first-half penalty kick and Chicharito Hernandez’s second-half tally bested an underwhelming South Korean team that didn’t often trouble El Tri’s injury-riddled back line, save for the occasional flash from Tottenham Hotspur star Son, who would narrow the scoreline in the 93rd minute.
Hernandez scored his 50th international goal for Mexico, which extends his national team all-time lead.
In a back-and-forth game, Mexico reverted to type. Against Germany, manager Juan Carlos Osorio had cunningly sat back and counter-attacked, surprising the defending world champions. But now El Tri was back to pressing and possessing, hogging the ball the majority of the time.
Once again, it very much felt like Mexico could have won by more, as several breakaway attacks were squandered, much as they had been against Germany. But this victory was more comfortable not so much in the final score as in the level of resistance encountered. Whereas Die Mannschaft dominated the Mexicans in the second half, Korea slowly deflated after conceding the first goal, and then withered following the second. And time had run out by the point Son saved his team’s honor with its first goal of the tournament.
In the 24th minute, Andres Guardado was played through to the back line by Hernandez. The captain flipped his cross across goal, but the sliding Jang Hyun-soo stuck his arm up skyward and collided with the ball. It was an obvious penalty, converted by Vela.
Miguel Layun then had a clear shot from the top of the box, but goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo pushed it over his bar. Layun probably should have done better with it.
So too should Chucky Lozano, the breakout star from Mexico’s opening game. Although he tracked back to make two key defensive plays early on, he was wasteful with his chances. Just before half-time, he darted through three defenders to carve open some room for a shot, but then blasted it high. It would not be the last time that the 22-year-old, who has reportedly drawn interest from FC Barcelona, would miss the target.
In the second half, with South Korea drawn further upfield in search of an equalizer, Mexico began to find room behind its midfield again – the very formula behind its upset of Germany. And after South Korea’s shout for a penalty was rightly denied — Carlos Salcedo’s hand was quite clearly flush against his midriff when he blocked a shot – Guardado provoked a magnificent save from Cho.
After Vela curled his shot wide of the far post from a promising spot, Hernandez finally settled things in the 66th minute. He cut inside of his man, and dinked a savvy finish past the goalkeeper. It was his 50th goal for Mexico, extending his record.
Mexico will be heartened by the knowledge that its place in the next round is almost assured. But there remains plenty of room for growth. The attack isn’t entirely in sync yet, with Lozano, Hernandez and Vela not quite connecting on many counterattacks. As the stakes get higher and the number of chances decreases, those plays will have to get cleaner.
But depending on what happens between Germany and Sweden later on Saturday, Mexico might have a game to tinker and sharpen with the pressure already off. If that game ends in a Swedish win or a tie, Mexico will already be through and can use its head-to-head with Sweden on Wednesday to rest players or work out the kinks – while remaining cautious not to give up their group lead.
And there was more good news in Saturday’s result. After an extensive campaign by the Mexican federation and its players, the famous homophobic chant bellowed by its fans when opposing goalkeepers take a kick was absent for the first time in at least a decade.
The news from Russia continues to be very good for Mexico.
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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