From the moment Mexico’s name was unfurled at the 2018 World Cup draw last December, it knew that the task would likely be tall. It knew that ending the so-called “curse of the fifth game” – winning a World Cup knockout round game for the first time since 1986 – was going to require bravery, and tactical acumen, and execution, and a willingness to suffer, and so much more.
Mexico, to varying extents, had most of that on Monday against Brazil, with a fifth game on the line.
And Brazil had Neymar.
Mexico squared up to the immense challenge, but succumbed to a 51st-minute moment of Neymar magic. The Brazilian superstar engineered a special two-man move, combining with Willian to both set up and score the winning goal in a 2-0 victory:
It was harsh on Mexico. Harsh on a team that had captured the imagination of millions, and who had them believing that this might be the year. But Brazil’s quality, in the end, proved insurmountable.
Mexico’s strong start
Mexico’s trajectory at the World Cup had been a negative one. It had stormed out of the gates against Germany, but stumbled into the Round of 16 with a hugely troubling loss to Sweden. In Monday’s first half, though, it broke the trend and quashed any worries stemming from the Sweden defeat.
Manager Juan Carlos Osorio promised in the buildup that his team would confront Brazil head-on, and it did just that. It pressed man-to-man in midfield. It had more of the ball through the first 45 minutes. It broke through Carlos Vela on the left and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano on the right. Chucky vs. Filipe Luis was an exploitable matchup that almost bore fruit.
Mexico created several dangerous half-chances. But like against Germany in the opener, attacks often broke down at the final pass, before a dangerous shot could be manufactured.
A lack of final-third quality was one of Mexico’s main hinderances at this World Cup. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was poor. He didn’t match the pace nor technical precision of Lozano and Vela. He didn’t have a single shot on Monday. His teammates too often settled for low-percentage ones:
Still, though, the tens of thousands of Mexican fans in Samara ole’d the ball around the field as Mexico possessed it. Brazil was somewhat lackadaisical through the first half-hour. It lacked off-ball movement. Neymar got the best of Edson Alvarez on one occasion, forcing Memo Ochoa into one of his eight saves. Alvarez shut him down one-v-one on another.
But toward the end of the half, the warning signs were there.
Brazil was a different team after the break. Its midfielders and attackers were more fluid and dynamic. They won individual battles, but also the collective one. And the goal put all of that on display.
Neymar, the left winger, cut inside, with Willian, the right winger, overlapping to the left. Neymar drew the attention of the Mexican defenders, sucking them out to the top of the 18, then darting in behind them as Willian charged against the grain. Neymar’s on-ball movement had opened up the entire left side of the field:
Mexican defenders’ eyes stayed glued to the ball as Willian accelerated into the open space. Neymar never broke stride, looping to the far post where his run was one of three more or less unmarked. It was the Selecao at their best.
Mexico stayed engaged and in the game, and continued to conjure three-v-three or three-v-four breaks. But the decision-making continued to be poor. Whereas Brazil had walked the ball into the Mexican net, El Tri’s long-range bombardment proved ineffective.
The Brazilians were always more likely to get a second than Mexico a first. They only became increasingly dangerous on the break. And they put the game away with a minute remaining of the 90.
Neymar escaped down the left. Ochoa, who was excellent all day, got a toe to Neymar’s toe poke, but Roberto Firmino was present on the doorstep to tap home:
The juxtaposition of Brazil’s goals and Mexico’s many unsuccessful attempts helped tell the story of the game. Mexico was prepared and refined in midfield. It was combative and sturdy when Brazil tried to play out of the back. It was synchronized and confident when it built from defense.
In the end, Brazil simply had too much for El Tri. It had a top gear at the top of the pitch that Mexico never found.