For 2 ½ games Mexico did nothing in Qatar — as in no goals, no wins and no chance to advance to the Round of 16, something it had done in every World Cup it has played in since 1978.
Then in the second half of Wednesday’s group-play finale, El Tri finally came alive, with Henry Martín and Luis Chávez scoring goals six minutes apart in a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia that very nearly earned it a spot in the next round.
Instead, it was sent home on a tiebreaker.
The difference was Salem Aldawsari’s goal for Saudi Arabia in second-half stoppage time. Although Mexico and Poland tied for second in the group standings with four points, Poland will go on because of its one-score edge in goal differential.
That seemed an unlikely outcome at the start of the day. Mexico was at the bottom of the group standings with just a point through two games, leaving it with long odds of staving off elimination. But the win, plus the two goals, pulled Mexico even with Poland — a 2-0 loser to Argentina — in the table and on goal differential heading into stoppage time.
The second tiebreaker is fair play and Mexico, with six yellow cards in its first two games, had no chance of winning that, leaving it needing a goal score again to pass Poland — which is when Aldawsari scored.
Moments earlier Mexico thought it gotten a goal from Uriel Antuna in the 87th minute, only to have it denied by an offside call.
Mexico’s first dangerous chance in a wide-open first half came in the third minute when a nice pass from Hirving Lozano sent Alexis Vega in alone on Saudi keeper Mohammed Alowais. But Alowais alertly dashed off his line to break the play up deep in the box.
Mexico was just getting started. Its first-half attack was relentless and Alowais, who made three saves and got a lot of help from his defense, spent much of the first 45 minutes simply hanging on for dear life with El Tri possessing the ball 68% of the time and outshooting the Saudis, 11-4.
In the eighth minute Alowais found Martín on his doorstep, but the Mexican striker arrived too late to get on the end of Jesús Gallardo’s cross, which the keeper punched away. Midway through the half Orbelín Pineda ran on to another nice pass from Lozano at the top of the box, but two Saudi defenders, sliding in from either side, took the power out of Pineda’s shot.
Mexico, helped by some horrible Saudi ballhandling, kept the pressure early in the second half and was finally rewarded when Martín’s goal off a corner in the 48th minute, snapping a 432-minute goalless drought in World Cup play dating to the second match of group play in 2018.
Chávez started the play by sending his the corner to the near post for César Montes, who headed it into the center of for box where Martín nudged it home with his left boot.
Mexico’s first goal came on its 29th shot in this World Cup. It needed just one shot to get another with Chávez bending a free kick just under the crossbar and into the side netting six minutes later. It kept up that pressure to the final whistle, taking 15 shots and putting seven of them on goal in the half.
Perhaps the opportunity Mexico will most regret missing came in the 78th minute when Lozano, with numbers in Mexico’s favor, cut inside from the left only to see his cross tipped away. Second-half substitute “Charly” Rodríguez was then taken down before he could get to the loose ball.
Eight minutes later Antuna rounded the keeper and on a breakaway put the ball in the net, only to see the offside flag go up, the second apparent score Mexico lost on a narrow offside call.