Mexico faces tough path to goal of reaching World Cup quarterfinal
It would be an exaggeration to say Group F is the toughest group, but Mexico's path to the round of 16 and beyond at Russia 2018 will certainly not be easy given Friday's draw.
El Tri will begin with arguably the hardest game of any against the World Cup holder Germany in Moscow on June 17. From there, Mexico moves on to Rostov to face South Korea on June 23 and then Sweden on June 27 in Yekaterinburg. The mission in the eyes of the vast majority of Mexico fans -- if not captain Andres Guardado, who has his eyes fixed on winning the World Cup -- is to break the hoodoo of six consecutive round of 16 exits and finally reach the quarterfinals.
And if Mexico should proceed to that decisive round of 16 game, it will set up a game against the winner or runner-up of Group E, which is Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. Boil all that down and the specter of El Tri facing Brazil in the first knockout match is real.
But nobody who follows Mexico should be underestimating the size of the task of simply getting out of the group.
A young Germany side shorn of its starters swatted Mexico away with ease in the Confederations Cup semifinal, and the World Cup holders go into the tournament as the favorite to win the whole thing. However, if there is a good time to face Germany, it is probably the first game of the tournament, and Mexico will be delighted to open its World Cup campaign in Moscow, where it is hoping to base itself. Preparations for that first game will be smooth compared to a long trip outside of Russia's capital.
The second game against South Korea is one Mexico is very likely to have to win if it is to reach the round of 16. El Tri can be confident against a side ranked 59th by FIFA and that didn't exactly excel in AFC qualifying, losing to the likes of China and Qatar along the way. Tottenham forward Son Heung-min will provide a real threat, however, and South Korea does have a handful of players in Europe's top leagues.
But it was the Sweden draw that would've irked El Tri most of all. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio told FIFA.com ahead of the draw that he would prefer to face possession-based teams, as that's a style to which Mexico adapts better than others.
Reading between the lines, Osorio was hoping for a side that would go at Mexico, playing it at its own game rather than a team that is more physical, defends robustly and is good in the air. And that description aptly fits Sweden, which was the second-tallest team overall in qualifying.
In that playoff second leg against Italy, Sweden managed just 24 percent of possession and one shot on goal. In the first leg, Jakob Johansson's goal came from a deflected shot following a cross from the right wing. It's an awkward style Mexico has struggled against even before Osorio's time in charge; there doesn't seem to be an obvious solution apart from El Tri sticking to its attack-minded game, throwing players forward and making sure it causes Sweden problems.
Given the draw, one big question is whether Osorio will rotate between games. The former Atletico Nacional coach did it against New Zealand in the Confederations Cup, and the temptation will be there to change things up against South Korea in the second game, therefore keeping key players fresh for the final group stage game against Sweden. But a negative result against Germany would mean that El Tri faces a must-win game in its second match.
Make no mistake: with Germany in Mexico's group and Brazil in the background as a potential round of 16 opponent, the goal of reaching a quarterfinal is more complicated for El Tri than it appeared before the draw.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.