Mexico played their best game in the U17 World Cup and quite possibly their best U17 World Cup game in years, stunning favorites Japan and taking the victory. In game conditions that started during a rainstorm that later cleared, Mexico was the better team and was able to stifle the very mobile Japanese team. Later on they were able to score in key moments in the second half and then sit back and come away with the win. They will now have a Quarterfinal match up with South Korea in what should be a tough match, but is more favorable than other brackets.
The game started in the middle of an incredible downpour. Mexico had a chance when a long range shot seemed to give trouble to Japan’s keeper Zion Suzuki in the rain. Then off a corner kick, Jesus Gomez got a free header but failed to connect cleanly to it, again most likely because of the rain. Mexico had the better start to the game. Santiago Muñoz had a good chance after taking on a defender and getting his shot but wasted it. Mexico’s keeper Eduardo Garcia had to make his first stop off a Japanese cross that turned into a shot. Mexico then had a great chance when Efrain Alvarez had a good shot, but Suzuki made the save. Later it was Muñoz who had his shot that Suzuki saved. The game got more even, but even then Mexico had more possession than Japan. Mexico came close again when Alvarez had another long range shot come just wide of the area. Mexico had a great chance when Eugenio Pizzuto and combined with Muñoz a play but once again Suzuki came up big. In the other area, Shunsuke Mito had an opportunity but his shot went straight to Garcia. Japan had another chance, but Garcia came up big again on a one-on-one with Mito and blocked the shot. Japan later had another good chance with a three-on-one but they wasted the shot. The halftime whistle blew and although Mexico overall had the better first half, Japan had the better end to it.
The second half started with Mexico hoping to repeat their start to the game in this half. The rain stopped, which looked to help the game immensely. Unlike the start of the game, Japan had more of the possession but they weren’t creating much danger. Mexico looked like it had a chance for a penalty against them when Muñoz was brought down, but it was not given. Off the corner kick, Pizzuto got a great header but a defender was able to head it and clear it for a corner kick. Then off that corner kick, Jesus Gomez got to the ball and lowered it to the center where in the scramble for the ball, Pizzuto was able to get to it and score off a left footed shot. While the Japanese players claimed for an offside, the replay showed it was a clear goal and Mexico had the 1-0 lead. Japan had a good chance but defender Taiga Hata’s shot went wide. Coach Marco Antonio Ruiz decided to sub out Alvarez for Israel Luna. Almost immediately, Japan had it’s best chance when Jun Nishikawa had a ball in the area, but his shot went straight to Garcia in a play where he should’ve done better. Mexico had another chance when Muñoz got to a ball and his cross was parried by Suzuki, however unfortunately for Mexico it went straight to a Japanese defender. After Japan had a great chance that their forward missed, Mexico made them pay. On a good counter, Muñoz was expected to make the pass to Luna but surprised everybody, including the Japanese defense by shooting the ball and getting it past Suzuki with his great shot for the 2-0. Japan started getting desperate attackers, Shoji Tayama and Sohki Tamura. Mexico started controlling the possession and playing with Japan’s anxiety, and doing a good job of it. Mexico subbed out Muñoz for Joel Gomez. Later on Garcia scared the Mexican defense when he almost dropped a cross but was able to hold on to the ball and clear the danger. Japan came close off a free kick when Nishikawa’s header came close to scoring, but it just when wide. Mexico sat back completely for the final minutes and gave Japan the ball to attack, but held on well and were able to contain them with Japan not having a clear idea of how to break through the strong Mexican defense. Japan had a clear chance though in the 90th minute but Yamato Wakatsuki missed on the shot, failing to connect with the ball. Another close chance from Nishikawa was ruled to be offside. Besides the injury time scare, Mexico had done enough to get the win and when the whistle blew, they were deserved winners.
While Mexico has been a powerhouse in this category ever since their first U17 World Cup title in 2005, their recent play was far from those past performances and the win was a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise because of the result (as U17 games are notable for their volatile results), but more by the leap in the level of play. Mexico was overall the better side against a Japanese team that had been one of the best teams in the group stages, especially considering their total dominance over a Netherlands team that just eliminated Nigeria. Yet on Wednesday it was Mexico who had the better play, and their win was totally deserved. While their next matchup against South Korea will be tough, in terms of the Quarterfinal rivals it’s one of the less complicated for Mexico. They must keep at the level shown on Wednesday and not go back to the one from their first games in the group stages. With another performance like against Japan, Mexico might be favored to arrive at Coach Marco Antonio Ruiz’s goal of a top four finish.