West Ham United’s Chicharito and his Mexican national team made hard work of qualification for the knockout rounds of the FIFA World Cup 2018 yesterday afternoon, despite winning their opening two Group F matches.
Javier Hernandez, scorer of eight Premier League goals in Claret & Blue last season, and Juan Carlos Osorio’s men faced Sweden at the Ekaterinburg Arena, needing just a point to book their place in the round of 16.
Before that, the Tricolour had defeated Germany in their opening match, “The Little Pea” assisting the only strike of the match scored by Hirving Lozano in Russia.
The nation who have been knocked out at the first knockout stage for the last six tournaments in succession, then went head-to-head with South Korea at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don, last Saturday.
Three points there also could have been enough to secure qualification from a group that includes them, the Germans, the Swedes and the South Koreans, nicknamed “The Group of Death.”
They did get that elusive second victory in succession but Germany’s late win over Sweden in Sochi meant that they would have to wait until the following Wednesday, yesterday afternoon, to secure their place.
In the triumph over the South Korea outfit, Hernandez netted his team’s second after a penalty from former Arsenal man Carlos Vela had opened the scoring.
This strike, assisted, by Lozano from inside the box, was his landmark 50th Mexico goal on his 104th appearance for the national team and filled him with confidence, as well as his country after the 1-2 win, to defeat the Swedes and finish atop Group F.
However, things were never going to be a simple as that for the Central Americans and they struggled to break down Janne Anderson’s stern defence in the early stages.
Neither Hernandez nor his much younger attacking partner in crime Lozano could get any joy and threaten to fire Mexico into the next round with flying colours, the former even nearly giving away a penalty for a handball in the first half, the referee deciding not to give it on VAR Review.
However, Sweden were patient and grew into the match, and it wouldn’t be long before they reaped the rewards, going ahead through Ludwig Augustinsson five minutes after half-time in the furthest east host city of Russia 2018.
12 minutes later, Andreas Granqvist, the Swedish captain doubled the advantage from the penalty spot and the match and progression was slipping away from the Tri.
While Hernandez was limited to half-opportunities on the counter-attack the Swedes raced into a three-goal lead and it was game, set and match, Edson Alvarez netting an unfortunate own-goal.
There was now nothing the Mexicans could do for a bizarre final 16 minutes in Ekaterinburg, but wait for news from the Kazan Arena in Kazan, where South Korea were hosting Germany.
Now, with the score at 0-0, Joachim Low’s reigning and defending champions needed just a goal and a victory of any kind to send them through in second place and knock the Central Americans out.
But, there would be one last twist in the tale thousands of miles west as the South Koreans scored two stoppage-time goals through Young-Gwon Kim and Tottenham Hotspur’s Heung-Min Son to complete a historic triumph.
The Asian nation’s history-making win proved to be Mexico’s saving grace, with the victory meaning that they would finish second and qualify behind Sweden, and not the Germans.
Remarkably, the 2014 winners in Brazil were heading home, to Hernandez and his side’s joy, incredible scenes in Russia, the Tricolour will be more determined than ever to end the hoodoo of falling at the first knockout hurdle six times on the spin.
However, it’s not looking likely that Chicharito and his comrades will achieve this, with the tournament favourites and number-one-ranked FIFA nation Brazil to clash with in the next round, at the Samara Arena next Monday afternoon, 3 PM BST.
The Hammer and former Manchester United striker, his country’s all-time leading goalscorer, has joined Joe Mario, currently on loan at the London Stadium from Inter Milan, of Portugal in the round of 16 after they qualified by drawing with Iran earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, they will have West Ham company today, if Senegal captain and Irons midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate and his countrymen can pick up the point they need against Columbia at 3 PM in Samara.
Also in Group H, new signing Lukasz Fabianski and Poland are playing for pride against Japan at the Volgograd Arena at the same time, having already been eliminated after two straight losses to Kouyate’s Senegalese and the Columbians.
Keep across all our platforms in the next few weeks, including our website and Twitter @WestHamMatters_, to find out how all of West Ham United’s FIFA World Cup 2018 representatives are getting on in Russia, don’t miss a tick, with us.