Qatar December 01, 2022: Martino takes fall for 'huge failure' as Mexico exit on goal difference
Once the initial outrage directed the way of Gerardo 'Tata' Martino subsides, they will probably still be waking up weeks from now in Mexico having nightmares about Mohammed Al Owais.
While his team-mates had run out of puff, their great World Cup adventure finally catching up with them in the most one sided of second halves here, the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper stuck his finger in the dam and somehow prevented it from bursting.
Mexico gave as good as they got. They were belatedly brilliant, overwhelming the Saudi defence time and again and teeing up this ensuing siege with two goals soon after the restart from Henry Martin and Luis Chavez. The only problem was Al Owais was better and, by the agonising end, all there was left for Mexicans to do was to cast a torrent of blame at the Argentine Martino, who leaves his post as the first coach to fail to lead the country to the Round of 16 in the last eight editions of the World Cup.
“I assume all responsibility for this huge failure,” Martino said. “My contract expired with the final whistle and there is nothing else to do.”
Level on goal difference and goals scored with Poland but trailing in the fairplay stakes by virtue of having collected a couple more bookings, Mexico craved a third goal as the game entered its final, nerve-shredding stages. It didn’t matter how the ball went in; it just needed to go in. But there was Al Owais, apparently not good enough to be first choice at his club, Al Hilal, but a one-man army of defiance in the splendid Lusail Stadium that oohed and ahhed until finally all Mexican hope evaporated and the finger pointing began when Saudi scored on a rare break in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Salem Aldawsari got the goal and suddenly Mexico’s players were down on their knees.
And so the privilege of facing reigning champions France at the Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday instead falls to the Poles who, despite their 2-0 defeat to Argentina, progressed by virtue of a one better goal difference.
On the touchline, Martino had kicked every ball, willing his players to find that one moment of inspiration while hoping down the road at Stadium 974 his compatriots would do him a favour by scoring a third. His prayers went unanswered and, watching Mexico attack with such intensity in that second period, you had to wonder why it took them so long to find their spark at the tournament. Chavez said the fault rested with the players but could not helping aiming a dig at his manager’s tactics in 2-0 defeat to Argentina. “I would say in the second match we didn’t fully understand what he wanted to see on the pitch,” he said.
As for Saudi, back at the scene of their shock win over Argentina, they will always be able to cherish that memory but that astonishing 2-1 victory ultimately proved a false dawn and the absence of several key men through injury and suspension here took a heavy toll.
After an even first half, Mexico turned the screw and Saudi succumbed, fatigue taking its toll as they lost their shape and began turning over the ball far too cheaply. Al Owais had already made a couple of good saves before Mexico went in front. Cesar Montes flicked on a corner and Martin was on hand to slot home a volley from a couple of yards.
Five minutes later, Mexico had doubled their advantage with one of the goals of the tournament when Chavez scored with a sublime free-kick hit with pace and whip that arced quite deliciously into the top corner. It had to be that good because Al Owais was in imperious form. Chavez would have two more free-kicks saved after that and Hirving Lozano had a shot that was headed for the bottom corner plucked away by the Saudi goalkeeper. Lozano did have the ball in the net - and Uriel Antuna did, too - but both were ruled out for offside. Wave after wave of Mexico attacks rained down on Saudi but either the finish was not quite there or Al Owais got in the way.
After an even first half, Mexico turned the screw and Saudi Arabia succumbed. Al Owais had already made a couple of good saves before Mexico went in front. Cesar Montes flicked on a corner and Henry Martin was on hand to slot home a volley from a couple of yards before Saleh Al Shehri could get there. Five minutes later, Mexico had doubled their advantage with one of the goals of the tournament when Luis Chavez scored with a sublime free-kick. There is something so stylistically enchanting about a left foot free-kick hit with speed and whip and the arc on the ball as it flew into the top corner was gorgeous. It was not a bad way to bring up your first international goal but it had to be that good because Al Owais was not in the mood to let much past him.
Chavez would have two more free-kicks saved after that and he was not the only one to be left frustrated by the Saudi goalkeeper. Hirving Lozano thought a shot was heading for the bottom corner only for Al Owais to claw a hand to the ball. Lozano did have the ball in the net – and Uriel Antuna did, too – but both were ruled out for offside. Wave after wave of Mexico attacks rained down on Saudi but either the finish was not quite there or Al Owais got in the way.
The first period had given no clues to the Mexican dominance that would follow the interval. Herve Renard denied this week that Saudi’s government had gifted his players a Rolls Royce apiece in recognition of their achievement in beating Argentina but this was more like the Delorean of first periods. It looked intriguing, promised plenty and got everyone rather excitable for a while but never really took off and ultimately left you longing for more. Good chances for Mexico’s Alexis Vega and Saudi’s Ali Al Hassan bookend the half but the frantic pace seemed to stifle the quality rather than supplement it as the Lusail brimmed with nervous tension and both teams excelled at shutting down space quickly and aggressively before the game became a rather stop-start niggle fest.
Then came the Al Owais show and Mexican heartbreak.