Reigning gold medalist Mexico faces a do-or-die clash with South Korea in Brasilia on Wednesday as it looks to keep alive its Olympic hopes. Mexico goes into the final round of group fixtures in second place, behind Korea on goal difference. But only a victory is likely to be sufficient to take El Tri into the quarterfinals, with Germany, two points back, expected to record an emphatic win over Fiji.
After the euphoria surrounding Mexican soccer following its upset of Brazil in the final in London four years ago, failure to make the knockout phase would be another blow, hot on the heels of a 7-0 evisceration by Chile in the quarterfinals of this summer’s Copa America Centenario. It would be particularly painful given that the team entered the Olympics with a strong squad and realistic hopes of at least getting another medal.
A 2-2 draw with Germany in the opening match for Raul Gutierrez’s side appeared to confirm that potential, even if there were defensive lapses. But the performance against minnows Fiji was far less positive. After a lackluster first half, Mexico even trailed 1-0 and its rising star Hirving “Chucky” Lozano was withdrawn at halftime after another ineffective showing.
Mexico would go onto win 5-1 thanks to four goals from Pachuca midfielder Erick Gutierrez, but it was a far from satisfactory outing. Not only did Mexico fail to rack up the huge victory required to surpass South Korea’s 8-0 win over the same opponent in the opening round of fixtures, but it also suffered two key injuries.
Winger Rodolfo Pizarro, a scorer and one of the team’s most impressive performers against Germany, fractured his right fibula and will miss the rest of the tournament. Perhaps an even bigger loss is Oribe Peralta, who also found the net against Germany as well as being the man who scored the two goals that beat Brazil in 2012. The striker also brought vital experience to the team, but he, too, will not feature again in the Olympics after fracturing a bone in his nose.
Queretaro winger Carlos Fierro and right-back Raul Lopez have been called in place of the injured duo, but are certainly not like-for-like replacements.
Still, not all is yet lost. In the goal glut from Gutierrez and the impressive performances off the bench of wingers Carlos Cisneros and Arturo Gonzalez, Mexico still goes into the game against Korea with some positives. But if it is to be a serious factor in the Olympics, then Gutierrez’s side is likely to need far more from Lozano.
South Korea has certainly got adequate production from its star men so far. Forwards Son Heung-min of Tottenham and Porto’s Suk Hyun-juk have both scored in each of Korea’s two games. And, following on from its bronze medal in 2012, the team has again shown itself to be a real threat to go deep into the tournament. Certainly the players have more motivation than most, given that Olympic medalists are granted exemption from the military service that all able-bodied males in South Korea must undertake before the age of 30.
The only disappointment for South Korea is that its place in the quarterfinals has not already been secured. It appeared that the team would be home and dry going into the game with Mexico when leading Germany 3-2 going into injury time on Sunday. However, a 92nd minute deflected free-kick means that South Korea still needs a point against Mexico to be sure of going through. A defeat will only be enough in the unlikely event that Germany fails to beat Fiji.
Prediction: The loss of Peralta and Pizarro is huge for Mexico and it is now really up against it going into Wednesday’s encounter. Mexico could still threaten a South Korea defense that allowed three goals against Germany, but El Tri, too, has been less than watertight at the back. A draw may well be the outcome to leave Mexico anxiously awaiting Germany’s result.
Predicted Score: Mexico 1-1 South Korea