Things went oh so wrong for Mexico in a 3-0 defeat to Sweden on Wednesday. One point would've put El Tri atop Group F and into Saint Petersburg to face Switzerland in the last 16.
But when Korea scored twice to send Germany packing, Mexico ended up where everyone sort of expected they would be when the tournament started: in Samara needing to beat the Brazilians to get to the quarterfinals on foreign soil for the first time in history.
Before heading off to the home of Stalin's bunker, Goal looks back at five storylines that emerged from Mexico's lopsided defeat to the Swedes.
Osorio's beauty v. efficiency dilemma
Juan Carlos Osorio is obsessed with soccer. He studies the game as his job and watches the game as a hobby. He idolizes great managers like Marcelo Bielsa and takes cues from the modern games greatest minds like Pep Guardiola.
So when faced with a team like Sweden, one that plays in one way, looking to use its size and physical attributes to beat the opponent, Osorio is puzzled. Mexico knows how to beat teams who come out and play soccer. It's why El Tri can top Germany 1-0 in the World Cup and can hang with Belgium in a top friendly but loses to Honduras and plays out a scoreless draw with Wales. Even the March friendly against Iceland, which Mexico eventually won 3-0 presented issues.
After the match, Osorio was asked if he'd rather play pretty and lose or play ugly and win. He pondered the question for a few moments. "Let me think," he said.
"Today and after qualifying, I would rather lose the way we lost. If we wouldn’t have qualified, then I would probably accept that from my part. I think it was too much, and it’s always the case.
"Today, my sin was to be a purist, thinking that with the idea of playing football, we can compete and beat a team that plays the same type of football every week. It showed me and it taught me a lot of lessons. Hopefully, one day I will get it right, that we play good football and we can beat teams that play that way."
You could see on the field even when Mexico was 2-0 down that technically they were the better team. El Tri moved the ball well, though it struggled to break through and get into the box. One-on-one its players were able to find success. Even defenders were using skill moves to scoot past the Sweden players marking them. But what good is it to play the prettiest soccer in all of Russia if you end up losing 3-0?
"Believe me, I deeply respect that way of playing. I don’t agree with it because they never play from the back, everything is from the goalkeepers to the attackers, but that’s the way you feel football should be played. That’s very respectable," Osorio said. "If you continue doing so I think you have a very good chance to get good results. It’s amazing to realize you can play in the same manner every time and compete and beat teams that play in a different way like we did."
While Switzerland undoubtedly would be an easier opponent to get past than Brazil, Mexico at least can take some comfort in the fact that Brazil will come out and play as well. It will be romantic v. romantic, a search for beauty v. beauty. Osorio's dilemma solves itself for the next game.
Edson Alvarez needs a lift
After a match in which he had committed a defensive mistake and put a goal past his own goalkeeper, 20-year-old Edson Alvarez left the field distraught. He was choking back tears as players like Guillermo Ochoa and Hugo Ayala ran over to comfort the young player. The reality is nothing he did changed Mexico's fate. He was hardly the sole reason El Tri suffered against Sweden and his work against Germany and Korea helped them pass through to the next stage anyway.
"We’ve talked with him. We’re talking to him in the locker room. They’re things that happen in soccer. They’re things that happen," center back Carlos Salcedo said. "I think we’ve always shown and always said that even when we have a good result and a good game the team can’t think to much of itself and when we have an afternoon that didn’t go like we wanted, the team can’t get too down."
It looks like the messages are getting through to the young America defender. "Experience is the name we give to our mistakes," he tweeted. "I'm not giving up. This continues."
Defense is not a position of depth, so even if Osorio opts for a different alignment in the next match, Mexico needs Alvarez to be available both physically and emotionally. The veteran players are doing what they can to make sure Alvarez is back with a smile on his face in training and with a healthy desire to get back on the field and redeem himself with his play rather than shrink back after a bad day.
El Tri players downplayed losing Hector Moreno for the match against Brazil, but it has to have alarm bells ringing internally. Moreno was booked after being called for a penalty when he took down Marcus Berg just after the hour mark. It was his second yellow of the group stage, meaning he'll miss out Monday. The center back is the only left-footed defender on Mexico's roster and, while Salcedo may have surpassed him as the best defender on the roster, he's still a crucial player to the squad.
As we've discussed before, not only does Moreno defend well (a few gaffes against Sweden notwithstanding), he also starts many of Mexico's attacks with his passes through the lines for the forward or over the top to players on the right wing. Having a player like Moreno who can send an accurate ball to Miguel Layun or Carlos Vela on the right and allow that player to make things happen is a big advantage - one El Tri will be missing against the South Americans.
"Hector is a very important player, but at the same time we have 23 players who are here with a big dream and we’ll try to do things as well as possible," Miguel Layun said. "The manager is in charge of that, the mister will make the choice about who will replace him, if we make changes, if we play the same way, we don’t know. Right now, we’re waiting to see who we’ll play and once we know that the manager will do the analysis and look for the way to win."
Layun could be an option to come back into the defense, playing at right back with Edson Alvarez moving into the middle and Salcedo coming over to left center back. Salcedo definitely seems to be the most likely player to fill the role after Osorio tried him there for a half in friendly matches against Wales and Scotland.
The Frankfurt defender should be fine at the position, but the question is about the right side of the defense without his skill and maturity. Ayala may come back into the starting XI at right center back. The Tigres defender held his own against a strong Germany team and may once again be called upon against some of the world's most talented players.
Getting the mentality right
It's tricky to strike the right tone, to find the balance between the confidence needed to go head to head against Brazil in the round of 16 and the disappointment that has to come after losing a game 3-0.
"We had a touch of luck," Marco Fabian said after the match.
"You’re in the World Cup. The mood is still high. The dream is still there. We’re not eliminated, we did advance so you have to be happy about that," Ochoa said. "Of course, you have to be clear, we’re not happy with today’s result, nobody is, but we’re also happy because we’re in the next round and like I said nobody gave us anything in the first two games. We beat Germany by playing good soccer, and we put the first strike against Germany. It turned out to be one of the toughest groups where anybody could beat anyone else. We’re still here."
Those players, in Fabian's case speaking to the TV cameras as he came off the field and in Ochoa's speaking in the mixed zone after the match, were able to find the tone. On the other hand, Rafa Marquez, the team's spiritual leader, didn't nail it after having time to think and reflect...
"The mediocre people who never have achieved anything in life will say we passed because of a miracle. Those who have gotten something important in life, we say first goal completed and now it's time to work and continue getting better to reach our next goal and objective," he wrote on Instagram.
That's not the right attitude, or #4ctitud, to take after the worst loss the national team has suffered since the 4-1 defeat to Germany the last time El Tri was in Russia.
VAR not bothering Mexico
There has been plenty of frustration about technology at this World Cup, with enormous video assistant referee crews reviewing every play as it happens. At times they have been involved in controversial decisions. Mexico saw a few VAR moments go in its favor Wednesday, with the referee in its game declining to award Sweden a first-half penalty after Chicharito's arm made contact with the ball in the box as he was trying to attack the other way. Korea's goal standing against Germany was another boost for El Tri.
There also were moments like Moreno's penalty where technology didn't come into play, and on the balance of things the game in Ekaterinburg was poorly officiated. Even so, there's relatively little frustration from the Mexico camp about VAR, with many players already familiar with the system thanks to its use in their leagues.
"It’s a weird topic. I’ve had it in the league, I had the chance in Portugal to play with VAR. It’s something so new, it’s different," Layun said. "Suddenly there’s a certain stress in every play on the field. It’s a new rule, we have to accept it, be aware of it and play with that as well."
Salcedo pointed out that it still comes down to a human (or a team of humans) doing their best to analyze the things they're processing whether it be live action or a video review. For the center back, Mexico's mistakes Wednesday were far more concerning than anything the referee did.
"I don’t like to talk about that much. Ultimately, we’re all humans and we make mistakes at our job. Today we made mistakes, and we can’t get upset by the referee," he said. "The referee did what he thought was right and we have to respect that."