EKATERINBURG, Russia -- Mexico's footballing fate appears to be inextricably linked to making the round of 16. How else to explain the bizarre sequence of events on Wednesday?
Sweden's 3-0 win over Mexico should've ended El Tri's World Cup, with Germany widely expected to defeat a South Korea side that hadn't managed a point in their first two games.
But there was a twist in that other Group F game. South Korea, ranked 57th by FIFA -- behind Burkina Faso, Scotland and Panama -- won 2-0 against FIFA's top seed and reigning world champion Germany. That sent Mexico fans wild, Germany back home and South Korea to reflect on what on earth happened against Sweden and Mexico in the first two games.
For Mexico, Group E winner Brazil is next. The South American country is the only other team aside from Mexico that has managed to negotiate its way through the group stage of the past seven World Cups.
But unlike multi-World Cup winners Brazil and Germany, Mexico has not gotten past the round-of-16 stage at any of the past six World Cups. In fact, Mexico has won only one knockout game ever at the tournament.
Now Mexico's passage to reaching a "quinto partido" (a fifth game) for the first time outside of a home World Cup will have to come by knocking out the team that is many people's favorite for the title.
There might be a feeling that Brazil's style of play is more to Mexico's liking than a direct and physical Sweden, but El Tri really couldn't have gotten a much more difficult draw. Brazil will likely be happy, especially after seeing Mexico's display against Sweden.
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Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said he was "very hurt" after the game. But he's probably more upset with himself than his team for sticking to the same 4-3-3 formation and playing the same starting XI for the first time in 51 games. There was some irony, given how Osorio stresses the need to rotate to keep players fresh, in some of Mexico's players looking weary against Sweden. Osorio admitted afterward that he regretted not playing three center-backs with one holding midfielder with good aerial strength.
The injuries to Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo really didn't help. With those two available, switching systems is much easier, with Reyes the natural choice to play in front of a back three.
Moving forward, the question is whether the game against Sweden saps confidence or is a cold wake-up call. Striker Javier Hernandez and the squad have been "imagining amazing things," and there are few things that would be as amazing as knocking out Brazil from a World Cup to earn a spot in the quarterfinals.
On the positive side, Mexico has already defeated Germany and appears defiant in front of the Brazil test, with captain Rafa Marquez making a strong statement to highlight what an achievement getting out of Group F was.
"Mediocre people who have never accomplished anything in their lives would say that we advanced due to a miracle," Marquez wrote in Spanish on Instagram. "Those of us who have done something important in our lives would say that our first objective was met, and now we are going to work, to continue to improve to reach our next goal, proposal or objective!"
In the end, it's going to take an almighty effort to get past Brazil, even if midfielder Miguel Layun says he believes the differences in quality between teams being reduced this World Cup.
"Today shows that world football is more even," Layun told reporters after the Sweden game. "Today, Korea beat Germany, and there are no longer those differences that there were when Brazil came up against any side and scored four, five or six goals.
"Today, Brazil finds it difficult, Germany does, Spain, Portugal and France do too. Today, football is very competitive, and each team has its strengths. The team that is able to impose [those strengths] on the field is the one who takes victory."
Layun's words are valid and true. Sweden's aerial bombardment won out over Mexico's creation and intricacy, whereas El Tri's incisive transitions down the wings helped it overcome Germany. Against Brazil, Osorio and Mexico will have to find ways of doing damage.
One thing almost goes without saying, however: Another fragile display for Mexico, like against Sweden, and the squad will be on vacation come Tuesday, with the "quinto partido" dream on ice for another four years.