What a manic and heartbreaking evening for Mexico, who finally came alive at a vibrant Lusail Stadium and narrowly failed to pull off a Houdini escapology act into the last 16.
Entering added time their higher yellow card count of seven to Poland’s five had them knocked out and though Salem al-Dawsari scored, one more Mexico strike would have put them through.
Gerardo Martino’s team had previously registered no goals at this World Cup yet 52 minutes in were 2-0 up and with the seconds ticking away had a last chance: Luis Chávez swept a free-kick into Saudi Arabia’s area and César Montes met it but no third goal followed and that was time up on Mexico’s brave effort.
Before this Edson Álvarez had also crashed a shot towards Mohammed al-Owais’s goal but it hit a Saudi back. A 20-yard dart by the lively Hirving Lozano claimed a free-kick on the edge of the area but Chávez belted it into the wall. Then Uriel Antuna found the Saudi net but this was ruled offside and Poland staggered through.
This almost certainly marks the end of Martino’s four years in charge, which will not upset many fans who had lost faith in the Argentinian after an insipid qualifying campaign and the two previous matches here yielding only a point.
The Mexico coach said: “I have no reason at the moment to think anything different – the contract expired with the final whistle and there is nothing else to do.”
The hostility towards him was underlined by tough questioning from Mexican journalists who demanded to know why their country had failed to qualify for the last 16 for the first time since 1994.
“I am the man responsible for this frustration,” Martino said. “This is a source of great sadness. I must say I assume all responsibility for this huge failure.”
After Mexico lost to Argentina, in the earlier group game Álvarez and Chávez said they did not understand Martino’s approach. The manager was asked if this was when control was lost.
“If we’re talking about internal conflict due to this, then no,” he said.
The Saudis, too, will rue their own case of what might have been as victory, to follow the memorable win over Argentina, would have given them a fourth match, at least, of Qatar 2022.
Hervé Renard was honest. “We won’t get the violin out and start crying. We did not deserve to win with how we played,” Saudi’s coach said. “We dreamed before to go through but this evening we didn’t fight enough. Mexico were much better. Next we first prepare the Asia Cup. It will be almost in one year’s time, so we still have time to. Also to start the World Cup qualifiers. This is our next goal for the Saudi national team.”
The catalogue of missed Mexico chances had begun with Alexis Vega racing on to a through-pass and only the frame of Owais stopping an opener. The save drew an ear-splitting cheer from the reported 60,00 Green Falcons fans inside and they soon sighed in collective relief.
Jesús Gallardo’s cross caused a mix-up as Owais flapped and Henry Martín – who scored Mexico’s first – went down when Hassan al-Tambakti challenged him.
If Michael Oliver was not interested in a penalty, Mexico were bombarding those in white, so raucous cries greeted any offering of positive Saudi play. A next threat came from a diving Orbelín Pineda header – he seemed to have slipped the ball beyond Owais but this proved an illusion and Saudi Arabia escaped.
The pertinent question was how long they could keep doing so. Via Lozano on the right or Gallardo on the left El Tri were in constant ready-to-receive mode from Héctor Moreno or Chávez and the Saudis’ only answer was to scramble or spoil – Saleh al-Shehri and Ali al-Hassan each having their name written in Oliver’s book for fouls.
The possession percentage share of 70-30 at half-time in Mexico’s favour illustrated near-total dominance but a Firas al-Buraikan dash that sprung their defence, followed by a flying Hassan header, reminded them to remain watchful.
A Chávez curving attempt beaten away by Owais at the start of the second half, though, suggested no let-up and at last Mexico struck. Their first goal of these championships was simple: Chávez directed a corner in from the left, Montes flicked on and Martín finished.
With Argentina beating Poland in the other game, goal difference was still stacked against Mexico progressing. But Chávez thumbed a nose at the odds by sweeping home the sweetest free-kick from 30 yards that beat Owais to his left, the ball always bending away.
This had the Mexico replacements joining the celebrations and drew their team closer to the seemingly impossible. In a madcap passage Lozano scored what would have been their third and the one that would have taken them above Poland on goals scored but offside ruled it out. When Argentina went 2-0 up against Poland this meant the Mexicans and Poles were tied on all criteria but fair play put the Europeans through.
Mexico continued to pepper Saudi Arabia but could not get over the line and claim a memorable margin of victory.