Following an exhilarating opening win against one of the favorites for the gold medal in France, Mexico was brought back down to earth by the host nation Japan in a 2-1 loss in the second of its three group games.
Japan punched Mexico in the mouth early (scoring two goals in 12 minutes) while the latter took a couple of bad hits — namely, an injury to the starting left back (Erick Aguirre) and a red card to the starting center back (Johan Vasquez).But the Mexicans staggered back, rediscovered their footing and delivered the final blows, leaving them with an overall optimistic vibe for what’s ahead.
El Tri still has destiny in its own hands when it plays its final group game on Wednesday: Beat South Africa in the final match, and it will clinch one of two Group A berths to the quarterfinals. A draw could also be enough, but that would depend on whether France wins its finale.
“I’m calm. We know there are things to improve,” Mexico coach Jaime Lozano said in the postgame news conference. “We weren’t the best team in the world three days ago (after the result vs. France) and now we’re not lower than the level we think we can reach.”
What happened to Mexico?
Comparing the win over France to the loss against Japan is the proverbial apples to oranges comparison: different opponent, different game circumstances, different result.
Japan jumped all over Mexico in the opening minutes and disoriented El Tri with harrying pressure and speedy, swarming attacking movements by its front four. The hosts scored on one lightning-quick cross and first-time finish in the box (Ritsu Doan to Takefusa Kubo in the 6th minute) and then forced a giveaway and a reckless Mexican tackle in the box, which resulted in a penalty kick goal (Doan in the 12th minute). Just like that, Japan, up 2-0 inside 15 minutes, proceeded to sit back and defend in numbers. It was a different script compared to Mexico’s first Olympic contest.
Things only got more complicated when Mexico left back Erick Aguirre fell to injury just before halftime and center back Johan Vasquez was sent off in the 68th minute for a foul on Doan that denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. If Mexico had 10 more minutes, it probably would have found the equalizer against Japan despite being outnumbered.
Two El Tri mistakes flipped the game
The first Japan goal saw right back Jorge Sanchez trailing dangerous winger Takefusa Kubo, who beat him to a cross in the box. The second was triggered by a Charly Rodriguez giveaway in his own half, followed by an ill-conceived lunge in the box by center back Cesar “Cachorro” Montes, who committed a penalty-kick foul for the second straight match.
“We committed errors that we hadn’t committed in a long time,” Lozano said after the match describing his team’s start to the game.
More than putting Mexico in a 2-0 hole, the lead allowed Japan the comfort of sitting back on defense and constricting the spaces that El Tri found joy in exploiting against France. Mexico star wingers Alexis Vega and Diego Lainez couldn’t stretch out their legs in this game, and center forward Henry Martin was a spectator as a byproduct.
Set pieces became the best way for the Mexicans to get a clean look at the Japanese goal. It finally happened on an 85th-minute Roberto “Piojo” Alvarado dead ball into the box from the right, which bypassed everyone on its way into the goal. Later, El Tri nearly equalized on another set-piece header, which the Japanese goalkeeper tipped over the bar.
In the end, it wasn’t that Mexico was outplayed or outclassed against Japan: The Mexicans were simply neutralized. The self-inflicted errors, which Japan deserves credit for forcing, set up a game Mexico found extremely difficult to navigate. Except for midfielder Sebastian Cordova, who stood out for his classy touches and one-on-one skills, the Mexican team generally had nondescript performances.
Where does this leave Mexico?
The loss to Japan should prove a helpful exercise for Lozano and his coaching staff to identify which players might be liabilities against this type of organized, high-pressure team that has elite speed merchants.
The good news for Mexico is that it won’t face that style when it meets South Africa on Wednesday. Based on the way the Bafana Bafana failed to defend THREE different leads against France in a 4-3 loss, Mexico should be able to find outlets for its talented attacking players. Plus, South Africa has to win by several goals if it wants to have any chance of snagging a quarterfinal berth. So it won’t have the luxury of retreating on defense.
The biggest challenge Mexico will face is replacing the suspended Vasquez in central defense, and perhaps left back Aguirre in case he doesn’t recover from his injury in time. Against Japan, Lozano opted on having right back Jorge Sanchez switch sides to fill in at left back, allowing the less experienced substitute Vladimir Lorona to play in his regular right back position. Whoever comes in needs to play a mistake-free game: South Africa’s three goals against France came on sensational individual efforts and, like Japan, its attacking players have the talent to punish any errors.
Even with the loss, Mexico is one of the top five teams seen so far at the Olympics alongside Spain, Brazil, Ivory Coast and still-perfect Japan. The Mexicans will be favored to beat South Africa next, and they will be favored in an eventual quarterfinal against whichever team they meet from Group B. The medal chase is still very much on.