Hirving Lozano’s first-half strike saw Mexico stun World Cup holders Germany at the Luzhniki Stadium in the opening match of Group F and, if Juan Carlos Osorio’s men had taken their chances, the scoreline might have been embarrassing.
Germany laid siege to a tiring Mexico’s penalty area in the final 20 minutes but could not find a way past Guillermo Ochoa, despite substitute Julian Brandt’s late strike clipping the post.
A round-of-16 exit has been Mexico’s fate in their last six consecutive World Cup campaigns. At times the glass ceiling has been utterly agonising – a penalty shootout defeat against Bulgaria in 1994, Maxi Rodriguez’s extra-time screamer for Argentina in 2006, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s 94th-minute spot-kick winner for Netherlands four years ago – and Russia may hold similar misery in store.
This Mexico will take some stopping, though. Osorio has built a team that defends with coherence and springs forward with the fluidity of a club side, even if their decision-making in the final third was often maddening against Germany.
Finishing top of Group F is their best hope of making the last eight and, after stunning the holders in Moscow, that route looks very possible.
Seven of Germany’s starting XI at the Luzhniki Stadium were 28 or older, and they floundered in the face of Mexico’s speed and energy. Midfield will be a key area of concern for Joachim Low, where Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira were swarmed in possession and bypassed with astonishing ease when their opponents won the ball back and hared upfield in numbers.
It’s reasonable to ask whether Germany have the recovery pace to play as high up the pitch as they do, particularly with sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer still working his way back to match sharpness. Future opponents will surely have noted how much success Mexico enjoyed exploiting the space left by Joshua Kimmich’s frequent forward runs and luring Mats Hummels into committing himself.
Low has more energy and athleticism in reserve – Antonio Rudiger and Leon Goretzka jump out as viable solutions
Low certainly could – and did – attempt to justify his decision to leave PFA Young Player of the Year Leroy Sane out of his final 23-man group for Russia. Germany’s biggest star is their system and any player who proves incompatible might do more harm than good. Sane has never even come close to replicating his sensational Manchester City form at international level.
Yet watching Mexico stretch this game with their fast and furious approach, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that Sane’s lightning pace and direct running could have been a key weapon in transition. Instead, with a creative line of Julian Draxler, Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil, Germany had no choice but to opt for patient possession.
Beyond his excellent goal, Lozano’s ability to tear into the space vacated by Kimmich’s ambition unsettled Germany from the first minute until his substitution in the 65th. He was a bundle of trickery and energy, bouncing into the gaps between Germany defenders and jinking away from tackles.
At times his decision-making was no better than that of his wasteful teammates, but with the game’s key contribution Lozano justified his pre-tournament status as the man to watch in this Mexico team. The winger’s excellent numbers for PSV Eindhoven this season – 17 goals and eight assists in 29 Eredivisie appearances – also suggest he is ready for a bigger stage.
Has any contender in Russia been entirely convincing so far? Spain and Portugal both displayed worrying defensive lapses in their six-goal thriller, France and Argentina are both stagnant in attack against disciplined defences and Uruguay badly lack quality in wide areas. Brazil and Belgium could stake more compelling claims, but questions remain about the mentality of both teams.
World Cups are not won and lost in the opening round but as long as Germany continue to look this jaded and vulnerable while their rivals battle deficiencies of their own, we will have no idea which two teams will end up in Moscow on July 15. And that can only be a good thing.