It was a game of five goals, some fascinating tactical switches, Mexico’s fightback and England’s perseverance in 32 degrees Celsius heat and 72 per cent relative humidity. This Group F Under-17 World Cup fixture at the Salt Lake Stadium started as one-way traffic and ended as a thriller. Mexico mounted incessant raids after conceding three goals, pulled back two and twice came close to drawing level. But England hung on.
The build-up to this marquee game had some hype. Two young fans, wearing Argentina national team shirts and sporting No. 10s on the back went through the turnstiles shouting, “England, England”. Football sometimes prevails over political acrimony.
On match eve, Mexico coach Mario Arteaga had spoken about taking the attack to England and putting their untested defence under pressure. But they were left chasing shadows in the first half. The Young Lions’ quality on the ball is top-class. Their passing game is fantastic. They keep the ball, play passes to frustrate their opponents, use width and then cut in sharply. Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, George McEachran and Callum Hudson-Odoi are the central figures in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
On six minutes, Hudson-Odoi received a ball from Sancho, turned two Mexico defenders and set up a tap-in opportunity from six yards for Rhian Brewster. But the young striker missed the sitter with the goalkeeper at his mercy. Manchester United fans in the stands might have been gloating over the Liverpool forward’s miss, but Brewster redeemed himself on 39 minutes, sending a 25-yard free kick into the top corner. Hudson-Odoi was fouled outside the area. Mexico had one proper attack in the first half but Jairo Torres hit wide.
Angel Gomes came in for Hudson-Odoi at the start of the second half as England switched to 4-4-2. Mexico brought in Cesar Huerta for Daniel Lopez and tweaked to 3-5-2. England stepped on the gas and were soon 3-0 up. The match looked done and dusted. On 48 minutes, after a neat one-two between Sancho and Gomes, the former unerringly picked an unmarked Foden inside the box. The finishing was perfect and the whole move made about 55,000 fans – even on a weekday – ecstatic. Six minutes later, Sancho cut in from the left, tried to send a cross but was prevented by Mexico captain Carlos Robles’ left arm.
The penalty looked a 50-50 call which went in England’s favour. Sancho calmly placed home from the spot. Then, England started to get leggy. Mexico sensed an opportunity and got a lucky break on 65 minutes, when McEachran lost the ball near his penalty area and Diego Lainez’s shot deflected off Joel Latibeaudiere and went in at the far post. Lainez’s second goal on 72 minutes was the result of a beautiful left-footed scoop that teasingly beat England stopper Curtis Anderson. The crowd suddenly started chanting “Mexico, Mexico”. Arteaga introduced Andres Perez and Sergio Villarreal and went direct. England, on the other hand, seemed to be missing a box-to-box midfielder like Hudson-Odoi.
Gomes was not offering versatility. England coach Steve Cooper brought in Morgan Gibbs White to play in the hole and it was a good ploy in terms of regaining control in midfield. But Mexico still should have equalised. Roberto de la Rosa missed an open header from six yards on 82 minutes. And four minute into added-on time, substitute Villarreal’s cross from the left found Luis Olivas inside the box. But the latter’s shot was blocked by Timothy Eyoma. England were through to the knockouts with a game in hand. Mexico now have to beat Chile in their final group game to stay alive.