DOHA, Qatar -- Nearly three months after last playing a competitive match in the Premier League and less than a week after his return through an international friendly, Mexico striker Raul Jimenez stepped onto the pitch at the 2022 World Cup.
As a 71st minute substitute during Tuesday's group stage match against Poland, the 31-year-old Wolverhampton Wanderers forward roamed around the opposition's half, desperate to create opportunities and to find the back of the net for Mexico for the first time since March.
That goal-scoring moment in Qatar's Stadium 974 -- nearly at full capacity with 39,000-plus in attendance, most of whom were emphatically rooting for El Tri -- never arrived for Jimenez or his teammates.
Try as he may, the veteran unsurprisingly resembled a player who hasn't taken part in a competitive match for months due to a groin injury. Although his link-up play was promising and he provided some clever distribution, his pace was a step behind most others. Through his limited time on the pitch, he also didn't have an opportunity to at least register a shot in the match against Poland, which ultimately finished in a 0-0 draw.
And yet, there was a sense of significant relief seeing Mexico's leading striker back on the field.
Not only because of what he represents to the national team -- a figure so singular that he's the sole member of El Tri with a standalone first name on his World Cup jersey -- but also because it's a minor miracle that he's back on the field in Qatar after a previous setback in 2020 that threatened his career.
'Unjust' criticism after long road to recovery
When Mexico take on Argentina (Nov. 26) in their second match of the World Cup, the encounter will land just shy of the two-year anniversary of Jimenez's serious head injury that would alter his life forever. During Wolves' game against Arsenal on Nov. 29, 2020, the striker was knocked unconscious and sent to the hospital for emergency surgery after a brutal clash of heads with defender David Luiz.
The mid-air collision fractured Jimenez's skull. He had to be stretchered off the field and suffered internal bleeding, and faced the possibility of long-term brain damage.
Jimenez wouldn't return to the field for eight months until a friendly for Wolves in the summer of 2021. Sporting a headband to protect his head, progress has been gradual over the last year or so, with additional injury setbacks in 2022 that have included a knee issue and his latest groin strain.
Out since August, the forward made his unofficial return in a brief cameo for Mexico in a 2-1 friendly loss to Sweden last week. Lacking a goal and with a bad first touch in his reappearance, media and fans pounced on the performance of Jimenez, placing a harsh spotlight on the recuperating player who had reportedly been selected over up-and-coming Feyenoord striker Santiago Gimenez for the World Cup roster.
Ahead of the game against Poland, teammate Guillermo Ochoa defended Jimenez's performance.
"Raul, I see him with a desire, with an ambition, with a hunger and with an eagerness to play," Ochoa said. "The desire to return to that level, to return to play soccer in the way that Raul has demonstrated, after what happened to his head, it's an example for everyone."
"I've seen him playing very well in training, I've seen him working on extra things," he added.
Ochoa also called out the critical reaction of a short clip that had gone viral of Jimenez seeming to struggle during a training session in Qatar.
"It's unjust a lot of times towards him, because they film a five-second video and they say he's not doing well. They don't even have any necessary information to report what really happened. It's sad," Ochoa said.
Raul's return sparks Mexico joy, but no goal
Luckily, that negativity seemed to go out the window once Mexico kicked off against Poland. Perhaps boosted by the shocking 2-1 result for Saudi Arabia earlier in the day over Argentina, there was a buzz in the air about anything being possible in Group C of the World Cup. When Jimenez eventually made his second-half appearance, it was to rapturous applause as his name was announced.
There were no goals for either side, but with some heroics from Ochoa in his dramatic second half penalty save against Robert Lewandowski, there was an unexpected mood of optimism from those in the stands that had just seen Mexico secure a vital point.
And despite the feel-good moments of Jimenez's competitive return or Ochoa's signature big-game performance, the theme remains the same -- someone needs to find the back of the net for El Tri.
Against Poland, Mexico played the way that they typically have in 2022: Lots of possession, slow build-up, but once in the final third ... nothing.
"In a World Cup with national teams on the same level, what's needed, without a doubt, is to be more effective in being able to finish the few goalscoring situations that are given in a game," said Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino after the game. "We couldn't capitalize on the three scoring opportunities that we had."
Starting striker Henry Martin had a fairly average match but wasn't able to make much of his significant time on the field. Alongside him, winger Alexis Vega couldn't take advantage of his own chances.
"Obviously, we're worried about not being able to score a goal. There were various chances and we couldn't finish, we need to give a bit more and be more decisive in this tournament," Vega said.
Tata has a tall task ahead in Messi, Argentina
Jimenez is a crucial part of an attacking process that has looked worrisome when he's unavailable. Mexico won't be entirely dependent on the Wolves player, but that said, it's not a coincidence that the national team's momentum began to slow after his latest string of injuries.
After a promising start to the managerial era for Martino in 2019 and 2020, which included a CONCACAF Gold Cup title, Jimenez's absence and very gradual return to full fitness threw the coach's 4-3-3 formation completely out of sync as he struggled to find a suitable replacement in the No. 9 position.
There were other factors, such as COVID-19 suddenly pausing the soccer world, but within a span of 13 months, Mexico then failed to win the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League and the 2021 Gold Cup, and they also went four consecutive games without a victory against their United States rivals. World Cup qualifying was a slog for Martino's squad who eventually earned a spot in Qatar, but through numerous low-scoring wins and draws.
Once in the knockout round, if qualified, they'll then seek to reach the quinto partido (fifth game), a mythical goal for the country that has finished one match short of the quarterfinal stage in the last seven consecutive World Cups.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Jimenez has yet to score and the odds remain difficult against Argentina, who will be overly eager to bounce back after losing to Saudi Arabia.
Getting a good result against an embarrassed Argentina could be a miracle in itself. But the same could be said for Jimenez, back on the field playing at the highest level, almost two years to the day when he almost lost his life.