Will the eighth time be the charm?
For the seventh consecutive time, Mexico advanced to the knockout stages of the World Cup, and for the seventh consecutive time it was eliminated in the first match it played. The elusive search for the quinto partido, the first quarterfinal in history on foreign soil, will have to wait at least another four years. Neymar scored a beautiful goal and set up a second to give the Selecao a 2-0 victory in the Samara Arena and end El Tri's hopes of progressing.
The opening goal was a piece of beauty. Neymar kept the ball near his feet, then set up Willian with a back-heel. The Chelsea attacker looked to have hit the turbo button in a video game as he surged forward, then found Neymar once again, the No. 10 having looped into the box unseen by several Mexico defenders. After a bright start to the match, it was 1-0 Brazil, just like all the pundits said it would be.
How could you get back from a goal like that? Mexico couldn't. The team wasn't set up for success by manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who started 39-year-old Rafa Marquez and sent Miguel Layun to the bench. He tried to make up for that mistake later, bringing in Layun at halftime and ending the Marquez experiment. He later added Jonathan dos Santos for 20-year-old Edson Alvarez, who had started the match at right back and been booked while attempting to keep track of Neymar.
There was no chance to bring on an attacking player like Giovani dos Santos or Javier Aquino. The only recourse the Colombian tactician had to boost his attack was to swap out one central forward for another. He replaced Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez with Raul Jimenez, only to see little difference. Had the team started with Layun at right back and Dos Santos in the middle in the first place, things may have gone differently.
The difference in the end was in the "details," Layun said. "They scored the goals at the right moments, and that’s it. I think it was a really well-fought game, a game where we worked. I got the feeling that it was a Brazil that was worried about what we can do. That means we’re getting more respect from the biggest national teams and that’s not unimportant."
It is a mystery as to why Osorio felt that Marquez, who was poor in the same midfield role in a 2-0 pre-tournament friendly against Denmark, would be the answer to the question of how to stop Brazil. The decorated veteran was a step behind, often out of place and ultimately ineffective. For a man as concerned as he is with tactical study, it was stunning to see him apparently rolling the dice and hoping for some sort of magic to come from Marquez, for the retiring hero to come through one more time and be carried off on the shoulders of his teammates and into the quarterfinals. It wasn't to be.
"Playing mano a mano against a team like Brazil speaks really well about Mexico's posture and attitude," Osorio said in his post-match news conference. I think we lacked efficiency and this extra quality they had in the final third. You have to remember the clubs they play in. To match up equally against them speaks well about Mexican soccer."
Osorio is a good manager. The next team he leads will be lucky to have him. He will move on from Monday's defeat, but he'll always have to wonder if he could've gone out as the first ever Mexico coach to get the national team to the World Cup quarterfinals. His team leaves Russia after a dignified showing but one that only shows that Mexican soccer still has plenty of work to do.
So too does Osorio. In each major tournament under his watch, Mexico has performed well in the group stage only to disappoint when the matches begin to matter. This defeat is hardly as embarrassing as the 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario or the 4-1 loss to Germany in last year's Confederations Cup. Yet it still stings all the same.
Mexico had a coach who was willing to do things differently but then fell victim to the desire to keep things the same. Brazil beat Mexico on Monday, but Mexico's 3-0 defeat against Sweden on the final day of group play may be the one that keeps the coach up at night. Just a point and it would've been a last 16 matchup against Switzerland, rather than a team that very well could lift yet another World Cup title.
Osorio got it wrong against Sweden, and he got it wrong against Brazil. It cost Mexico dearly. With so many talented players, many of them playing regularly at the highest level, this World Cup could've been historic. Instead, the team goes back to Mexico feeling the same as every other time. The quest for the quinto partido continues, with glory delayed another four years.