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Sports Mexico make men’s soccer quarterfinals: Now it’s Olympic medal match or bust for El Tri

03:42  29 july  2021
03:42  29 july  2021 Source:   sportingnews.com

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Mexico won a must-win game at the 2021 Olympics and did it with the swagger of a contender, beating South Africa 3-0 to close out the group stage, booking a spot in the quarterfinals against South Korea on Saturday.

There’s a massive caveat to go with the overall positive impression: The win came against a hapless South Africa team that was poor at set pieces and poor defensively, with moments of bickering and finger pointing among the players. The South Africans rarely ever came close to being as goal-dangerous as they were in the previous outing against France, a match during which they held a 3-2 lead at one point.

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But South Africa had a motivated, cohesive Mexican team in front of it. Despite missing starters due to suspension (Johan Vasquez) and injury (Erick Aguirre), and also resting their top attacking star (Diego Lainez came on as a 13-minute sub), the Mexicans did not skip a beat and logged an efficient, professional performance. If El Tri was feeling any pressure in its final group game, it sure wasn’t showing it.

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Uriel Antuna filled in for Lainez and played a smart game down the right wing, serving up the ball that led to the first goal. The South African defense did its part on the second goal (short ‘keeper punch and backward header by a defender in his own box) and forward Henry Martin, arguably Mexico’s best player on the field, started and finished the move for the third goal.

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The one blemish was the red card to midfielder Carlos “Charly” Rodriguez (below) for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity in the 66th minute, when he tripped up a South African attacker breaking free on goal with the score at 3-0. He’ll be forced to sit out the quarterfinal, which represents a significant loss for Mexico.

a man wearing a green shirt: Carlos Rodriguez - Mexico - 2021 Olympics © Provided by Sporting News Carlos Rodriguez - Mexico - 2021 Olympics

How to replace Charly?

Rodriguez is extremely valuable to Mexico's functioning — senior squad included — for the way he connects the team from back to front with his passing, while also tracking back to challenge and break up plays by the opposition. His ability to keep possession and make good decisions under pressure would have been helpful against a pressing team like the Koreans.

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His likely replacement against South Korea, FC Juarez midfielder Joaquin Esquivel, is more defensive-minded and will surely sit back as the deepest, holding midfielder, freeing up the influential Luis Romo to push higher up the field. But the key to helping the build-up lost by Charly’s absence is Sebastian Cordova, who cannot hide in this next game. He’s going to need to roam and get on the ball plenty if Mexico are to have success.

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Meanwhile, the Aguirre injury contingency at left back ​​— having Jorge Sanchez switch flanks and handing Vladimir Lorona right back duties — worked out fine for the second game in a row, in case Aguirre is still out come Saturday. And Jesus Angulo played well at left center back (and then at left back) in place of the suspended Vasquez. Mexico has depth.

South Korea up next

The Mexican side is familiar with South Korea: Seven members of the current Mexican Olympic roster were part of the senior squad that beat its South Korean counterpart 3-2 in a November 2020 friendly in Austria. But there were also four current South Korean Olympians who were part of that match.

a man throwing a ball: Sebastian Cordova - Mexico - South Korea - November 2020 © Provided by Sporting News Sebastian Cordova - Mexico - South Korea - November 2020

Their quarterfinal showdown should prove the latest in a series of tight contests between these two nations over the years. Since 2000, the senior men’s sides have faced off six times, with four of those matches decided by a goal and another ending in a 0-0 draw that went to penalty kicks at the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Mexico has the slight edge (3-2-1 record), although the Koreans won the Gold Cup PK shootout.

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South Korea finished tops in Group B, the weakest at the Olympics. They lost to New Zealand in their opener and then benefited from early red cards shown to Romania and Honduras to put a total of 10 goals past those teams (including three penalty kicks against Honduras). It’s a beatable team, but it’s going to take a mistake-free effort.

Path to a medal

If Mexico can get by South Korea, it would guarantee El Tri plays for a medal and it could set up a mouth-watering semifinal clash with the last gold medal winners, Brazil.

The Mexican team always manages to raise its game when it sees the Verde-Amarela on the other side. Mexico famously beat a Brazil team that featured Neymar, Thiago Silva and Hulk in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match. This version of Mexico’s Olympic team has many similarities to the way its 2012 edition was constructed from back to front.

Given El Tri’s pedigree, it will definitely be considered a disappointment for its run to somehow fall short in the quarterfinals. The dangling carrot of potentially playing Brazil in the semifinals should be plenty of motivation to ensure they don’t look past the Koreans.

American Felix sets new women's Olympics medal record .
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