Mexico will be heavy underdogs as they face Japan in their Round of 16 match in the U-17 World Cup. Mexico got through to the knockout rounds after crushing the Solomon Islands, but it was only as a third-placed team after drawing Paraguay and losing to Italy. Meanwhile their rivals Japan won Group D, which many people considered the Group of Death, cruising past the Netherlands and beating a tough Senegal team. They have yet to allow a goal in the tournament, which is bad news for a Mexico team that has lacked offensive power in every game besides the ones against the Solomon Islands. Mexico hopes that their powerhouse level in this category, that has given them two World Cup titles, returns to have a shot at returning to a youth World Cup quarterfinal.
While Mexico’s Coach Marco Antonio Ruiz said his goal was getting into a top four finish for the U-17 World Cup, so far Mexico hasn’t shown to be a candidate to that finish. Mexico got a scoreless tie against a tough Paraguay team, in which they went down to 10 men after Eugenio Pizzuto was red carded. They then lost to Italy 2-1 in the final minute after a terrible defensive display. Mexico had missed a penalty in the first half when they game was scoreless, but had gotten back to tie the game in injury time with an Efrain Alvarez goal. In the 94th minute however, they coughed up the tie and also got their second red card of the tournament. Mexico needed a win in their final match to get through, and they did it against the last place finisher of this tournament the Solomon Islands. Mexico had a good strategy and were able to handle the Oceania team well. Mexico gave some players a chance to improve their play, most notably Israel Luna who missed the penalty against Italy and also a sitter against the team. He wound up scoring twice against the Solomon Islands.
Still, the jump in quality will be big. Mexico hasn’t faced a team who has looked as good as Japan so far in the tournament. Mexico did beat Japan earlier this year in the Niigata tournament. However, many of the players who have shined for Japan in the World Cup didn’t play that game.
Japan are definitely favored to get to the quarterfinals, where they would face South Korea in what could be a rematch of the U-20 World Cup. In that match, the South Koreans won and then ended up finishing in second place. That said, Japan should not underestimate Mexico. Mexico has done well in past U-17 World Cups and in recent years has improved at times as the tournament progresses. Mexico showed signs of improving against the Solomon Islands, and although it’s not an ideal matchup, it looks to be a better one for Mexico than other ones like France. If Mexico get through Japan, they would have the preferred rival in the Quarterfinals, a South Korea team that appeared to have gotten lucky in getting a win against Angola. Angola already looked as one of the weaker Round of 16 teams, and deserved a better result than a loss in the game against South Korea. So while it will be a tough test for Mexico, the reward can be plentiful as they continue in a tournament where the “quinto partido” is not a rarity for them.