(Reuters) - Last year, Sweden reached the World Cup in Russia by out-muscling a technically superior Italy team in a playoff, and on Wednesday, they did exactly the same to Mexico to advance into the play-offs of the tournament in Russia.
Both teams went through from Group F to the last 16 after Germany’s stunning 2-0 defeat by South Korea. But it remains to be seen how much Mexico’s confidence will be affected by what was ultimately a humiliation at the hands of the Swedes.
Aiming to end a run of six successive group stage eliminations, Mexico began their campaign in Russia impressively by out-thinking world champions Germany in a 1-0 win and then beating South Korea 2-1.
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio varies his team according to the opponents and had fielded 50 different line-ups in his 50 matches in charge up to and including the South Korea game.
But, for the first time on Wednesday, he picked a line-up he had used before, naming an unchanged team. After the chastening experience against Sweden, he might well go back to tinkering.
Mexico were simply incapable of dealing with Sweden’s aerial bombardment.
The Swedes pressed high and looked dangerous almost every time they hoisted a ball into the area. Mexico were only spared in the first half by a couple of misses from Emil Forsberg and a Video Assistant Referee review which went their way.
Argentine referee Nestor Pitana was alerted to a possible handball by Javier Hernandez, the Mexico forward appearing to use his arm to control the ball, but after consulting the pitch-side monitor, he decided it was not a penalty.
Mexico, meanwhile, failed to impose the high-tempo rhythm which had floored Germany and once Ludwig Augustinsson put Sweden ahead with a somewhat fortuitous goal five minutes after halftime, there was no way back.
Sweden extended their lead with a penalty which once again raised questions over the VAR system - or, in this case, a failure to use it.
Marcus Berg went down under a challenge from Hector Moreno and the referee pointed emphatically to the spot without reviewing the incident — though maybe he should have done as television replays suggested that Berg simply planted his foot in the ground and fell over before contact was made.
Interestingly, Osorio admitted afterwards that he had gone against his instincts with his team selection, as he usually fields a three-man defence against sides who play like Sweden.
“Today, for the first time I tried to be maybe a purist,” he said. “People say you should play your own game and not what the opposition want you to be. We need to find a middle way - to stop the opposition in the air but still play our own style.”
Mexico would have gone out if Germany had won and, in the end, their fans were watching the other match on their mobile phones rather than the game in stadium.
Fortune smiled on them but Osorio’s many critics, who went quiet after Mexico’s first two games in Russia, may now be back on his case.
Writing by Brian Homewood in Moscow; Editing by William Schomberg