Game of the day: Mexico 2 - 1 Saudi Arabia
It was a tough choice for this slot, because none of the four games today were fantastic displays of the sport by themselves. But considering the tension and drama they carried in relation to each other, this made for some of the best viewing a World Cup can offer. For freaks like us who keep two TVs in the living room, this is our reward, our justification, or raison d’etre.
Anyway, Mexico are heading home because they didn’t get the one more goal they needed. For the first time in this tournament, and really the first time in much longer than that, Mexico looked like an actual attacking threat. Saudi Arabia attempted the same gambit, at least to start, that they did against Argentina, with a maniacally high line behind their forward line in a mid-block, basically surrounding the halfway line and trying to condense play into a 10-15 yard area. But whereas Argentina are built on patient, intricate, short passes to work their way up the field, Mexico are more conditioned to play directly and hit through balls and go over the top. And let’s be clear again, Saudi Arabia’s ploy only worked against Argentina thanks to Lautaro Martinez being two inches offside, maybe. It was just as much luck as cunning stratagem.
So Mexico created a wealth of chances, but has been their bugaboo for pretty much the entire cycle, or at least ever since Raul Jimenez got hurt two years ago, they don’t have a surefire striker. Jesus Corona’s injury before the tournament only exacerbated this problem, leaving Chucky Lozano as their only world-class attacker. It’s not a huge shock that Mexico’s two goals in the second half came off set pieces.
Still, Mexico gave their fans a thrill, if only a cheap thrill in the end. As they threw most of the nation at the Saudi goal, they scored twice in five minutes, which set both games in Group C on edge. Thanks to Argentina taking a 2-0 lead, both Mexico’s and Poland’s overall goal-difference was back to 0. Which meant Poland’s plan from there was caught in between the minds of getting their own goal to take the goal-difference advantage while also being terrified of giving Argentina more space to score again. Or they could sit still, try and bore Argentina to death, and ride their advantage in fair play points (yellow and red cards). Mexico’s charge was easier, which was just to score again against a Saudi team that was basically eliminated. And if that didn’t work, they could hope for Graham Zusi to suddenly become Argentine, come on as a sub against Poland, and bail their ass out again. Neither happened.
Of course, there was one more twist. Saudi Arabia scored on the counter in injury time, which swung the goal-difference battle back to Poland. But, Mexico still only needed one more goal, because if they got it they would go through on goals scored. But they couldn’t find it, and I guess they can feel better about going out on a tiebreaker of goal-difference instead of fair play points, as most of the second half was poised to send them out on. Though most of us would have chuckled forever and possibly burst a kidney doing so if Mexico ate it because they were slightly dirtier shits than Poland.
Argentina 2 - 0 Poland
As we said, Poland pretty much had their place in the knockout round land on them more than they did anything to take it. No one expected Poland to try and match Argentina on the ball, and it’s hardly a bad plan to make them break you down and try and hit on the counter. It already worked for someone in this tournament, after all. The crux of that though is that you at least attempt the second part, or even think about the second part, or look like you know how the second part works, or that you’ve ever tried the second part in the recent past.
Poland offered nothing in this game, and Robert Lewandowski was so isolated from his teammates that he started painting a face on a volleyball. Poland could only punt the ball in the direction they hoped Lewandowski would be, and if he could somehow get to it he would have to hold it up for three minutes before any teammate could join him. This has been Poland in basically every tournament they show up to, which seems a shame because there are players here. They should be capable of more than simply seeing if they cast a shadow outside their own 18 every seven minutes.
Poland can thank their keeper for advancing. Wojciech Szczęsny looked like he might make a run at Tim Howard’s record for saves in a World Cup game, and he might have had to if Argentina hadn’t called off the dogs for the most part in the last 10 minutes. He saved a Messi penalty, which is the margin that Poland got out of the group by, and made eight other saves.
The panic over Argentina was always overblown after their opening loss. Spain lost their first game in 2010, after all. They were on the ass-end of lightning being deposited in a bottle, and have grown into the last two games and look pretty sharp now. The first half against Mexico was awful. The second half was better. The first half against Poland was pretty good, and the second half better. Today’s big change was Martinez being removed from the starting lineup for Julian Alvarez, and he responded with six shots and the second goal. Enzo Fernandez, Rodrigo De Paul, and Alexis Mac Allister, didn’t really have to do much in midfield, considering how ham-handed Poland was, but that is a scary steel wall for the real teams later in the tournament to have to negotiate.
France 0 - 1 Tunisia, Denmark 0 - 1 Australia
Much like the shenanigans in Group C, the morning saw two matches that have to be viewed together in Group D. Neither was a great game in a vacuum. France sent out the B-team because they already had the group clinched for all intents and purposes. Australia’s plan has always been the same, which is to work hard, defend, and see what they could scrounge if the chance came. Boy did they.
The headline here is that Denmark are out after being in the European Championship semifinal just 16 months ago (and having a very questionable penalty go against them to knock them out). But they can’t really have any arguments, because they’ve looked insipid for most of the tournament. Their hopes really hinged on what they would do in the opener against Tunisia, and they never really threatened. The worry for the Danes has always been that they just don’t have a striker, or even a forward line, that they could count on to finish off whatever chances they did create.
And while Christian Eriksen is a wonderful story, we’ve said before wonderful stories don’t win by themselves. Australia didn’t find it too challenging to deal with the Danish plan. They simply stood one or two guys around Eriksen at all times. Eriksen is not Luka Modric, in that he can’t dribble his way into space to then launch his otherworldly vision and passing. He’s pretty stationary. Denmark didn’t have a Plan B.
Without Eriksen at the Euros, the Danes had to find various ways to score, whether that was rampaging wingbacks or pushing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg into a more offensive role or whatever else. We saw basically none of that in this tournament, with everyone waiting around for Eriksen to make things go. In a game they had to win, against a very limited Australia side, they generated just 0.65 xG and three shots on target. Compare that to Mexico, in a similar situation, who piled up 11.
But fair play to Australia, who knew what they were and did it to the hilt. They were barely under threat from Denmark, and took their one chance. And it turned out they needed that goal as Tunisia beat JV France. Only the most addled kangaroo would have had the Aussies collecting six points in this group, but here we are. And hey, we get videos like this.
Goal of the day: Well they may be back on the plane but Mexico did provide us with this Luis Chavez freekick. Have a dip, son:
Eulogy for the departed - Mexico
I’ll try and keep my glee about the U.S.’s biggest rival taking their flapping gums home…and fail miserably. One wonders if Memo Ochoa still thinks the U.S. wants to see Mexico in the mirror now, dingus.
It isn’t really much of a shock that Mexico is going home, because this has been one of the least impressive Mexico sides in recent memory. As stated above, they haven’t had a striker of any note, and Corona’s injury deprived them of a foil to Lozano on the other side. But this is Mexico, and they should have more depth than seeing one injury causing them to be out of answers.
We saw them in four games against the U.S. and Canada in qualifying. They didn’t win any of them. They scored one goal. They should have lost all four, in reality.
This will probably engineer a lot of self-reflection in Mexico, and it should. Mexico is, arguably, the third most populous county on the planet where soccer is the main sport, behind Brazil and Nigeria. It has three times the population of Argentina. It has a wildly popular league. But either through their own silliness, or corruption, or arrogance, or some combination of all three they have stalled out. Mexico shouldn’t be worrying about reaching the quarterfinals as some sort of their own Valhalla. They should be worried about winning the fucking thing. And they haven’t been farther away from either in a very, very long time.
Saudi Arabia - They took their swing, they have a result they’ll remember forever, but you can’t beat Argentina and then look like your limbs fell off against Poland and expect to go through. Anyway, let’s have one last Right Said Fred moment before they go:
Denmark - Find a striker, or just try to convince FIFA that Norway and Denmark are the same thing and run Erling Haaland out there. It’s FIFA, it just might work.
Tunisia - Victory over France probably feels great for a host of reasons. They’ll at least have that.
Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid? He was still in USMNT glow, and we can’t blame him.
Did VAR fuck anything up? It ended up being a BALL DON’T LIE situation, but the penalty to Argentina felt awfully soft. Yes, Szczesny did catch Messi with his hands after Messi headed the ball, but it was a light brush. Credit to Fox’s Mark Clattenburg though for pointing out that if an outfield player had caught Messi with their feet after he had played the ball, it would be a foul. Still felt really soft, but once the ref is called over to the screen it feels like he is compelled to change his call simply to justify the time taken. Didn’t end up mattering, thank god.
Should we laugh at Mexico one more time? Let’s…