Mexico outsmarts South Korea to join Croatia as unheralded World Cup threats

Few expected Mexico to make an impact in Russia, but Juan Carlos Osorio's side have proven their quality and appear bound for the last 16.

Published : Jun 23, 2018 23:20 IST

Brazil, Germany, Spain and France. In that order. Maybe Argentina and Portugal, because Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Oh, and Belgium. They have a golden generation. England? Ha, no way.

That was most people's response when asked who the teams to watch would be at the FIFA World Cup.

A fortnight into the tournament and two sides largely neglected - at least outside of home shores - have stolen the spotlight.

Croatia stated its intention to do more than gallantly challenge a powerhouse before bowing out, Zlatko Dalic's men accounting first for Nigeria and then humiliating Argentina.

Mexico has announced itself in a different order, stunning Germany with its opening remarks by beating the holder 1-0 in Moscow.

And to prove that result was no fluke, Juan Carlos Osorio's resurgent team overcame the admirable test posed by South Korea, traditionally one of Asia's strongest nations, albeit not enjoying its finest vintage in 2018, in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday.

Shin Tae-yong, the head coach of the Taeguk Warriors, had been worried about the weather for the match on the banks of the Don River, the temperature having risen sharply in comparison to the team's training base near St Petersburg. 

But some welcome cloud cover and a steady breeze blowing in from the steppe offered more palatable conditions to those endured in the game of walking football that was forced upon Uruguay and Saudi Arabia here.

Instead, it was Mexico who made South Korea feel the heat. Right from kick-off, Osorio's players, marshalled expertly by captain Andres Guardado, used the ball intelligently, passing crisply and probing for weaknesses.

Hirving Lozano, touted for a move to the Premier League in the wake of his winning goal against Germany, demonstrated his other qualities by tracking back to dispossess a dawdling Ju Se-jong in the 15th minute, and that set the tone for a Mexico performance defined by a decisive combination of industry and invention.

Guardado's partner Hector Herrera robbed Hwang Hee-chan of the ball three minutes later and the trend continued, a turnover in central midfield leading to the move that allowed Carlos Vela to score from the penalty spot following Jang Hyun-soo's handball. 

South Korea, in desperate need of points, was obliged to search for an equaliser after the break and while chances duly followed, they arrived at both ends.

Javier Hernandez finished off one of the increasingly numerous counter-attacking opportunities presented to Mexico by its opponent's desperation, with Son Heung-min's stunning consolation goal arriving too late to save Shin's side. 

Mexico hasn't reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup since 1986 on home soil, bowing out in the round of 16 in the last six tournaments in succession, a hoodoo the team, its supporters and the country's football media are only too aware of.

It remains to be seen if the balanced, effective outfit Osorio has conjured out of what had until recently been a maddeningly inconsistent team is capable of ending that sequence, particularly given Brazil could yet lie in wait next. 

But the qualities on display against South Korea, namely the versatility required to switch seamlessly from dictating terms to pouncing on the break, should serve El Tri well in its quest to end the last-eight curse. 

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