Mexico knew they needed three goals at least. Poland knew they had a three-goal cushion. Mexico were up against a Saudi Arabia team that had taken down Argentina while Poland had Messi to contend with. Both games went exactly how one would expect – Poland not landing a single shot on target and losing by two goals and still entering the Round-of-16, while Mexico went out fighting till the bitter end, scoring two and searching for the third, only to concede one in the final minutes of their stay at the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
But the drama that engulfed the second half of both games – the permutations and combinations that were being put out and then struck out as each goal and each save changed scenarios – was unlike any other group at this World Cup.
Both games went into the first half goalless but not for a lack of trying. Lionel Messi had a penalty in the 39th minute that he missed. The consensus was that it was a good strike but even a well-struck shot at the goalkeeper’s left at mid-range is simply not a statistically sound penalty to take – and one that Wojciech Szczesny got to in the nick of time.
If Messi missed one clear cut chance in his game, Mexico were shooting at goal from every possible angle and distance in theirs. The Saudi Arabians chose to go with three at the back, a high line and Mexico countered with an average of four to five players at the throat of Herve Renard’s charges. The first half ended with Mexico taking over ten shots and each being parried away, or blocked or cleared heroically by the Saudis.
The first blow
The complexion of the group changed as soon as the second half began. Argentina struck first, scoring through Alexis Mac Allister. Minutes later in the other game, Mexico finally struck after having run into a brick wall for the first 45 minutes of the game. Henry Martin lived up to his billing and poached a goal in the Saudi box to make it 1-0.
El Tri then quickly turned the group on its head by scoring another in the 52nd minute – this time a left-footed freekick – curled beautifully through the air and hurried into goal by Luis Chavez. Goalkeeper Al Owaisi didn’t stand a prayer as the ball crashed into the left top corner.
At this point, Mexico needed one more goal to go through. But on the other hand, if Argentina scored another to make it 2-0 on their end and the score remained the same against Saudi Arabia, then Poland would go through on the basis of FIFA’s fair-play rules.
FIFA’s fair-play rules dictate that if a scenario occurs where two teams in a group have the same number of points, the same goal difference and have both drawn against each other, then the team with fewer yellow cards would move into the Round-of-16. It is a rule that dealt heartbreak to Senegal at the 2018 World Cup when they had to exit the tournament on the back of their yellow card count.
And lo and behold, Argentina decided to add further gunpowder to the volatility of this group – Julian Alvarez scored in the 67th minute to put Poland down by two goals. Now Mexico desperately needed that third goal or it would be curtains for their World Cup campaign.
Even before the start of this tournament, the consensus was that Mexican supporters didn’t have very high hopes of their team. Their first two games – a dull 1-1 draw against Poland and then a 2-0 loss to Argentina proved that that assessment might not have been too far off.
But the last forty minutes saw them throw everything they had at the Saudis. They scored in the 56th minute only for the goal to be rightly disallowed as offside. Then they had another goal chalked off in the 86th minute, yet again for offside.
The Argentina-Poland game was the first to end, with the Argentines taking first place in the group with a 2-0 win. Polish fans were caught on camera nervously checking their phones and then glancing back at their own field of action. Poland’s Round-of-16 hopes rested on Saudi Arabia.
And then the Saudis flipped the script again, much like they have done through this tournament. A one-two passing move between Hattan Bahebri and Salem Al-Dawsari ended with the Saudi No 10 coolly slotting the ball home and scoring one final goal for his team, with mere minutes remaining on the clock. They were never in with a chance from the first minute of the match – having to stave off one Mexican wave after another. But their final act of the World Cup was to kill any hope that their North American counterparts had to qualify for the Round-of-16.
The referee soon blew the whistle and the manic pace of two World Cup matches, a few kilometres away from each other, came to a frenetic end. Argentina had gone through. Poland had limped in. The door was shut on the Mexicans cruelly in the last minute and it was the Saudi Arabians who did it to them.
Group C lived up to its potential and how.