With the World Cup draw behind us, it is that time of year where fans look at their World Cup chances. United States fans, let me make this easy for you: zero. Italy fans: same thing. Chile fans: sorry! This is going to be a World Cup Preview for the Mexican national soccer team including with game-by-game breakdowns, my prediction as a fan, and then my prediction as an analyst
First thing is first is the group. This year’s World Cup draw didn’t leave one clear “Group of Death” but Mexico’s group is definitely a candidate to be it. The group is headlined by Germany, the defending World Cup Champions whose B Team made Mexico’s A Team look silly in a 4-1 victory. Next to come into the group is Sweden, a team that beat Italy in the UEFA playoff in order to secure their World Cup Berth. Lastly, there is South Korea, who may look like the weakest team on paper but they are led by Tottenham Hotspurs’ arguably second best offensive player, Son Heung-min. The schedule doesn’t help Mexico either, they face Germany, their toughest opponent first, which I personally hate because a loss against Germany will immediately start the tournament on the wrong foot, both in the group and just from an emotional standpoint. I would have preferred the same type of schedule that Mexico had in the last World Cup where they got Cameroon, the “weak team”, Brazil, the “strong team”, then Croatia the team that can eliminate Mexico. The 2014 schedule favored Mexico because they got off to a strong start against Cameroon and played motivated against Brazil which allowed them to escape with a draw. With that draw they played much more relaxed in the decisive game against Croatia. This year Mexico gets the “tough team” first instead of the “weak team” which gives Mexico almost no chance against Germany. If Mexico were to play South Korea first, a win against them would give Mexico the motivation to go and play Germany looking for a win rather than what they are thinking now which is, let’s try to not lose by 3 or more. If Mexico wants to beat Germany in their first game of the World Cup they have to go in there not belittling themselves; they need to go in there and play them as if they were playing against the United States in Columbus, Ohio, they know they can win, they just need to play a near perfect game.
The next game on the schedule is against South Korea. Now, assuming that Mexico loses 2-0 to Germany (which is being generous) this game is a must win. Sweden and Mexico and basically playing to see who can concede less goals from Germany and score the most on South Korea. While South Korea appears like an easy opponent, ranking at 59th in the world on FIFA’s monthly rankings. While this ranking is low, they have and will play strong preparation matches to get ready against Mexico. They recently played against Colombia and beat them 2-1. Both of these goals came through South Korea’s most dangerous player Son Heung-min. He is a pacey player who can play anywhere on the attacking side of the field. He can use both feet equally well and is the type of player that can give the soft Mexican defense trouble if they are not prepared. In the game against Colombia, South Korea played a little more defensive, conceding 60% of the possession, but when they did have the ball they made good use of it, putting up 16 shots with 6 of them being on target. That rate is extremely efficient, it tells me that whenever they got the ball, they attacked with a purpose. As opposed to what Colombia did, they had 60% possession but only shot 7 times, only 2 being on target. A team like South Korea can play spoiler for either Mexico or Sweden if they are underestimated. When in a group with Germany and Sweden it would be very difficult to look past the South Korea game and look towards the Sweden game.
The next, and most important is the Sweden game. If everything goes as expected Sweden and Mexico will both come into this match with 3 points, a loss to Germany and a win against South Korea. This is why the game against Germany is so important for Mexico, if they get embarrassed against Germany and come in with a poor goal differential then they’ll have to win against Sweden, but if their goal differential is better than Sweden’s then a draw will be enough. In the playoff games against Italy to get into the World Cup, Sweden played a super defensive game, having only 37% possession in the first leg, which they won 1-0. In the second leg they were even more defensive, having only 24% possession. This does not bode well for Mexico. The squad does not have enough individual talent to break down strong defensive teams and the team gets frustrated easily when they have to score and things to not go their way. Sweden will come out defensively either way, but if they have a better goal differential than Mexico then they will play like they did in the second leg of the playoff against Italy. This worries me because I’ve seen the Mexican national team enough to know that if they get thirty minutes into the game and don’t look great, they’ll get desperate and start launching in aimless crosses. If they do this they will not win! Sweden is one of the tallest teams at the World Cup, their defense is what allowed them to beat Italy. Mexico will need a player to take over, a Chucky Lozano, a Tecatito, they are going to need something special to break down a defense that held Italy scoreless for 180 minutes.
As for my predictions: as a fan I truly believe I have seen Mexico go toe to toe against some of the greatest teams in the world. They recently tied to a full strength Belgium 3-3, a match they could have won. If I’m being as optimistic as I can, I believe Mexico can draw against Germany in the first match. If that happens then they have a legitimate chance to win the group. If they win the group then they will not have to face the winner of group E which is looking likely to be Brazil. They would face an easy team in the round of 16 and a relatively easy team in the quarter finals. If Mexico wins the group then they have a legitimate chance to get to the Semi-Finals. But that is a very big if. My official prediction as a fan is that they will get to the Semi-Finals.
As an analyst, I can see Mexico getting out of the group, but if they play as expected they’ll end in second place and will likely face a strong Brazil team. In this game I suspect we’ll see a very similar game to the one we saw in 2014 where Brazil was on top of the Mexico team but Memo Ochoa put on his Superman cape and came up with probably the best game as a goalkeeper I’ve ever seen (I’m probably being biased). In case you missed it here is a link with the saves and I recommend you listen to the commentary even if you don’t understand it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhCHYcPw-D8. Assuming Mexico plays as well as they did in 2014 against Brazil, I believe the game will end 0-0 and Mexico will lose in penalties. Mexico has never advanced to the Quarter-Finals and sadly I don’t think this is the year it will happen either.