By ANNE M. PETERSON and STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writers
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Mexico is going to have to suddenly find goals —and perhaps even several of them— to extend its knockout-round streak at the World Cup.
Mexico has reached the round of 16 at the last seven World Cups, tied for the longest current streak with Brazil. But in Qatar, El Tri sits at the bottom of Group C ahead of a must-win match against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday at Lusail Stadium.
The last time Mexico played at soccer’s biggest tournament and didn’t advance out of its group was in 1978.
But it’s not quite as simple as winning: El Tri must also get help. They’ll need Poland to beat Lionel Messi and Argentina at the exact same time at Stadium 974.
That’s the easiest way forward for Mexico. Beyond that, it gets complicated. If Mexico does its job and wins but Argentina, one of the tournament’s favorites, also wins, then goal difference comes into play.
The problem is, Mexico has no goals yet in Qatar.
In fact, El Tri hasn’t scored in 384 straight minutes at the World Cup, dating back to their second group match at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
“We believe in our chances. We hold on to our chances,” said veteran Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado, who is appearing in his fifth World Cup. “And obviously we will try until the very end.”
Mexico hasn’t been eliminated from the group stage since the tournament in Argentina 44 years ago. El Tri didn’t qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and was banned from the 1990 event in Italy for using overage players at an under-20 tournament.
Since then, Mexico has advanced to the round of 16 in its last seven appearances—but no further. El Tri came to Qatar looking to play in an elusive “quinto partido”—a fifth game—for the first time since Mexico hosted the tournament in 1986.
“In the next game we have no more chances,” Mexico forward Henry Martin said. “We have to score the goals that we can, and not worry what happens in the other game.”
With the lack of goals, the criticism of Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino grew. He had already been questioned over some of his choices, including his decision to leave all-time leading scorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernández off the team.
Hernández, who now plays for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, scored the team’s last goal in a 2-1 group-stage victory over South Korea in Russia. LAFC forward Carlos Vela, who also fell out of favor with the national team, scored the other.
Martino could be looking for a new job if Mexico doesn’t advance after playing Saudi Arabia, a team that pulled off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets ever when it beat Argentina 2-1 in its opener.
“Not getting through would leave a lot of frustration,” Martino said Tuesday. “We need the goals to win. That is what it takes to keep us here.”
Saudi Arabia couldn’t pull off another upset Saturday when it fell to Poland 2-0. The Saudis reached the round of 16 back in 1994, the team’s World Cup debut, but hasn’t made it past the group stage since.
“We will play to the last second of this tournament and we will not give up,” Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard said.
Nawaf Al-Abed sustained an ankle injury against Poland and it was unclear if he would be available against Mexico.
Meanwhile, Messi has already come to Argentina’s rescue at the World Cup, and he might just have to do it all over again.
Another emotionally charged evening awaits Messi and the soccer-mad South American nation that worships him when Argentina meets Poland on Wednesday.
The match will have so much on the line: for Messi, who is playing in likely his last World Cup; for Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, who might also be too old when soccer’s biggest tournament rolls up next in 2026; and for the World Cup as a whole, because who, really, doesn’t want to see Messi —one of the game’s greatest players ever— in the late stages of a tournament that is heating up so nicely?
There are multiple permutations at play for the Group C finale. Should the Argentines win, they are sure to advance, likely as the group winners. If they end in a draw, they can either finish in second place behind Poland or be squeezed out by either Saudi Arabia or Mexico.
A loss? Well, that just doesn’t bear thinking about for anyone associated with Argentina. The team wouldn’t just be eliminated but humiliated. And Messi might never be seen in the Albiceleste’s sky-blue-and-white jersey again.
That scenario is too much for Argentina fans to take. It’s why tears were shed on the field, among the technical staff, and among the fans after Messi scored the crucial second-half goal to set Argentina on its way to the 2-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
That victory meant Argentina bounced back from its shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening match and now has a fighting chance to avoid a first group-stage exit since 2002.
“Now another World Cup has begun,” said Messi, who will hope to score for the third straight match at this World Cup and has netted 13 goals for Argentina in 2022—already a career-high haul in a single calendar year.
Concerns about Messi’s health have dogged the seven-time world player of the year at the World Cup, starting from when he trained alone for two days before Argentina’s opening game. He played the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia and also in the Mexico game, which he finished in some discomfort after turning his ankle late in the match.
Messi later confirmed it was nothing serious, but it only adds to the worries about the physical well-being of a 35-year-old player who is clearly pacing himself during matches, picking and choosing his moments to explode into life.
Elsewhere, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni must decide whether to persist with Lautaro Martínez, who has been well covered in the first two games, or go with another striker in Julián Álvarez.
Likewise, has highly-rated young midfielder Enzo Fernández done enough to force his way into the team after a scoring cameo as a substitute against Mexico? And who will Scaloni pick at fullback, having played a different right back and left back in each of Argentina’s games?
As for Poland, some of the weight is off the 34-year-old Lewandowski’s shoulders after he finally scored a goal at a World Cup in the 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
Now he’s looking to advance beyond the group stage for the first time at a World Cup. Poland hasn’t done so since 1986.
Argentina fans will be wary of the threat of Lewandowski, who rivals France’s Karim Benzema as the best striker in the world.
They’ll know, though, that they have an even bigger icon in Messi, who continues —even in the twilight of his magnificent career— to bend soccer games to his will.
Can he do it one more time?