Mexico backed in despite a loss. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
After all the unthinkable results so far, there’s no way it would continue. Right? Wrong. The insanity continued on the two-week mark of the tournament, sending a variety of nationalities on a roller coaster of emotions.
Mexico 0-3 Sweden
Ekaterinburg Arena, Ekaterinburg
Mexico were looking to solidify their spot at the top of Group F, needing only a draw, while Sweden could assure itself qualification with a win - and potentially win the group for themselves. Mexico started in bad form from the whistle as midfielder Jesus Gallardo picked up the fastest yellow card in World Cup history just 13 seconds in. Each side would have opportunities but few on goal, sending them tied 0-0 at halftime despite Sweden being the higher pressing team.
Sweden would be rewarded for their persistence with the opening goal five minutes into the second half. Ludwig Augustinsson - a member of Sweden’s 2015 UEFA European U-21 championship team - picked up his first goal with the senior team on a play where three Swedish players were ready to pounce inside the box. In the 60th minute, Mexico defender Hector Moreno would be yellow carded - disqualifying him from playing the following match - for a tackle inside the box. Sweden Captain Andreas Granqvist would convert his second penalty of the tournament to put his side up 2-0. An Edson Alvarez own-goal in the 74th minute sunk Mexico further and 3-0 Sweden would be the final scoreline.
Analysis: If you had asked Mexico fans what their expectations were heading into the tournament, most would say a second place finish and a round of 16 bout with Brazil. That all changed after El Tri’s opening win against Germany. They only needed a draw on the day but even that was in jeopardy on Wednesday - not to mention their qualification hopes. A win by South Korea secured Mexico’s passage into the next round, which would have been toast had Germany been able to find a goal. Ultimately, it’s a clean slate and Mexico will be lucky to have salvaged at least that. Some may argue that they match well with Brazil, but even if they win on Monday, the Sweden loss has put them in the toughest side of the bracket. Maybe the tough competition will bring the best out of Mexico, but otherwise, this may have been a wasted opportunity.
Sweden, on their end, have not been getting the credit they deserve and this win will get them that. After leaving out the Netherlands and Italy in European qualifiers, the Nordic nation have won their group to set up an advantageous tie with a hobbling Switzerland. Nothing is guaranteed but Sweden look strong and a side that is ascending and one that should reach the quarter-finals.
Notable stat: Mexico repeated a starting XI for the first time under Manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s tenure.
South Korea 2-0 Germany
Kazan Arena, Kazan
Defending champions Germany had saved their hopes with a late goal over Sweden in their previous match and needed a win to advance. South Korea lost its first two matches but were hopeful to go through if Mexico could get a win over Sweden. Both teams would have their share of opportunities but could not find a way to break the other down through the full 90 minutes. Kim Younggwon would break the deadlock in the 91st minute off a corner - but there would be drama, of course there was. The goal was disallowed and marked as offside before referee Mark Geiger went to video review to determine the goal was legal. Germany sent everyone forward including goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who would abandon his goal. Son Heung-min scored South Korea’s second on the counter late in stoppage time to secure his country a win over the No. 1 ranked team.
Analysis: South Korea gave themselves a chance to qualify and may have done so if Mexico had won. They will lament not doing more in their first two matches as their opener against Sweden was decided by a penalty. They will leave with heads held high after a historic win but have plenty to work on if they want to make noise at Qatar 2022. Given that the next World Cup takes place in their continent, it would be their best chance to go far.
Germany, on their end, will end in embarrassment as this team becomes the most unsuccessful in recent history. The last time the Germans bowed out in the opening stage was at France 1938. The silver lining? When Germany were embarrassed by exiting the 2000 European Championship in the group stage, their reaction was to re-evaluate their shortcomings to produce one of their most successful generations. In my opinion, recent champions have failed to incorporate more youth in their squads to replenish their championship-winning sides instead of returning with virtually the same squad - just four years older. Expect Germany to come back strong and give way to younger players as the USA has done.
Notable stat: The defending champion has failed to move past the group phase for the third-straight World Cup and for the fourth time in the last five editions.
Serbia 0-2 Brazil
Spartak Stadium, Moscow
The possibilities for Brazil ranged from winning the group to potential elimination entering Wednesday. For Serbia, a win was a must to advance. Given what has already transpired in this World Cup, Brazil were not going to test their luck and wanted to secure a win as fast as possible. The five-time champions constantly pressed forward with their high-speed attack and took the lead in the 36th minute. Paulinho would be the man to get the goal, one he hit with a delicate poke to pop it over Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
The Verde-Amarela would continue to press in the second half with Neymar while Mitrovic would lead the attack for the Serbians. Brazil would get their second goal off a corner, converted by defender Thiago Silva in the 68th minute. Brazil would continue to push for a third up until the final minute but the match would end with the 2-0 score.
Analysis: Serbia had it though in this group and could not come away with the result they needed in the end. Given that the loss against Brazil was expected, their wasted opportunity came by not beating Switzerland. This is a disappointing outing for a side that could have returned to their first round of 16 since France 1998. The only way to turn this around? Build on this result and qualify to Euro 2020.
Brazil, on the other hand, is looking good and morphing into the favorite most painted them as. The only pushback against them should be that they weren’t tested much but it’s not their fault who they were pit against. It should say something, however, that Brazil have not suffered as much as other non-European nations and that bodes well for their title hopes. Historically, Brazil has not struggled to adapt to different continents - winning a World Cup in four different ones - and are the only non-European side to win a World Cup hosted on European soil. If Brazil win this edition, they will have certainly earned it as they are forced to navigate the strong side of the bracket.
Notable stat: Brazil went through the group stage undefeated for the fifth consecutive World Cup, last losing a group match at France 1998.
Switzerland 2-2 Costa Rica
Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Switzerland knew a win would secure their ticket into the next round and the rest would be decided by what happened between Brazil-Serbia. Costa Rica, already eliminated, seeked redemption with a win on their way out. It would be the Central Americans who were strong in attack early on but a few unlucky plays, including hitting the top post, kept the match scoreless. Switzerland broke through in the 31st minute goal from Blerim Dzemaili to put things at 1-0, and that’s how the teams would arrive to halftime.
Kendall Waston would tie things in the 56th minute with a goal in his first World Cup start. Josip Drmic would regain the lead for the Swiss in the 88th minute. Costa Rica had an opportunity to equalize late thanks to a penalty. Bryan Ruiz’s shot hit the top post before bouncing off the back of the head of Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer. The match would end 2-2, a result that sent Switzerland through as the group’s second best team.
Analysis: Switzerland are through but are also swaying like a drunk into the knockout round. The biggest downside of their draw with Costa Rica is that they will be without two defenders due to yellow card accumulation, something that doesn’t bode well for them. The upside? They are on the soft side of the bracket and are pit against a familiar foe in Sweden. Passing as the second place team may turn out to be a blessing but not if they play like they did Wednesday.
Costa Rica, though, will leave with disappointment. They were unable to build on their Cinderella run in the last World Cup but didn’t even look like a side worthy to advance. Competing with Mexico and the United States, Costa Rica has not shown the consistency to carry the cache those countries have (and, yes, I know the USA missed the World Cup). They may remain as the better Central American country but they will fail to go far without more players gaining minutes in quality European leagues - and that, to me, is why they lacked quality at Russia 2018.
Notable stat: Costa Rica was the last team to score at Russia 2018, 426 minutes removed from Bryan Ruiz’s goal against Greece at Brazil 2014.
Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):
Thursday, June 27
9 a.m. - [Group H] Japan vs. Poland (FS1, NBC Universo)
9 a.m. - [Group H] Senegal vs. Colombia (FOX, Telemundo)
1 p.m. - [Group G] Panama vs. Tunisia (FS1, NBC Universo)
1 p.m. - [Group G] England vs. Belgium (FOX, Telemundo)
Per The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Framber Valdez plans on both he and the catcher calling pitches this year. He said he “wants to feel more comfortable,” adding “not that I don't feel comfortable with the catchers, but I want to feel comfortable and throw the pitches with more conviction…to feel like I have the game in my hands.”
Framber Valdez has the PitchCom device on his glove as he warms up before the first inning in West Palm Beach. Yainer Diaz is catching him today. https://t.co/tqgmzwfN7r
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) March 1, 2024
Is that a good thing? Either way, it seems like a return to form for Framber Valdez is the biggest “what if” for the 2024 Houston Astros.
Be sure to watch the video above as ESPN Houston's Paul Gallant & Joe George discuss.