In its first match of the group stage, Mexico was on the losing end of a 6-1 rout by Nigeria. Iraq faced a similar fate, losing 4-1 to Sweden on matchday 1. A loss in the second match would likely spell elimination from the competition for either team as the tournament was designed to give teams a second chance but not a third.
Head coach Raúl “Potro” Gutiérrez made two changes to the starting line-up that lost heavily to Nigeria. The goalkeeper and backline remained the same but Luis Hernández and Victor Zúñiga, both substitutes in that first match, came into the side for Christian Tovar and Ulises Jaimes. That meant the team looked a little something like the following picture, a pretty standard attacking 4-4-2 with José Almanza as the deepest midfielder and Alejandro Díaz as the target man up top.
Inside the first minute, Hernández made a run down the left and sent a decent cross into the box towards Díaz. The ball was cleared out for a corner, which was played short, and the play resulted in another corner.
During the opening sequences, Mexican players showed their technical prowess by keeping the ball in very tight space down the left flank despite heavy pressure by Iraq. However, a danger appeared for Mexico a short time later. After the Iraqi goalkeeper claims a cross after initially flapping at it, Bashar Resan sprang a counter-attack down his left side. Resan would be a constant threat to Mexico and occasionally sparked flashbacks of Nigeria’s Success Isaac getting the better of the Mexican defense.
El Tri’s dynamic attack showed itself again as Hernández sent in a deep cross that Ochoa headed back across goal. Rivas and Zúñiga each saw their shots blocked before the ball fell to Díaz who shot agonizingly wide. During a more sustained period of attacking pressure, the ball was played from the center out wide to an advanced Calderón. The right back crossed the ball, which was met with an exquisite glancing header by Alejandro Díaz in the 31st minute. Díaz met the cross outside the near post but angled his header so well that it bounced into the side netting at the far post.
Mexico was enjoying its first lead of the tournament and continued to show its attacking intent. After six corner kicks failed to produce fruit for Mexico, a long throw-in from a deep position did the trick. The throw sailed into the box and Díaz did well to flick the ball on towards the near post. Off-balance, Iraqi central defender Ahmed Nadhim attempted to head clear but the ball fell in space directly in front of Almanza just wide of the post. The industrious central midfielder slammed his shot into the back of the unguarded net to double Mexico’s lead before halftime.
By the end of the first half, Mexico had amassed 74% of the game’s possession. With goals in the 31st and 41st minutes and the lion’s share of the ball, Mexico was in the driver’s seat and controlling proceedings against Iraq.
Though Mexico came out from the halftime interval with confidence, Iraq continued to show life with speedy counterattacks. Resan grew to a more integral part of Iraq’s attack as he switched his point of attack and tried to race past Mexico’s defenders. Left back Osvaldo Rodríguez put in an immaculate sliding challenge after running across the field to recover as Resan broke past the rest of the backline. Resan continued to terrorize the left flank and drew a foul from right back Calderón in a promising position.
After all the activity surrounding Resan, Iraq found a breakthrough from a defender. Nadhim drove forward out of the back and played in Amjed Attwan, whose shot was blocked by the Mexican defense. Fellow defender Sherko Kareem was on hand to rifle a sniper’s effort into the bottom corner of the far post from 25 yards out. Against the odds Iraq had pulled a goal back; 2-1 Mexico.
Mexico attempted to nip any Iraqi comeback in the bud with a specially arranged free kick routine. Cameras showed head coach Gutiérrez calling out number five and the players reacted accordingly. Hernández played the free kick in from the left side to Ochoa, who could not manage to direct his free header either on frame or to any of his three teammates in the goal-mouth.
With 20 minutes left in the match, Iraq began throwing numbers forward. Sherko Kareem again got into an advanced position and easily cut inside of Caleron before hitting his right footed shot in the outside netting at the near post. To provide fresh legs to withstand this barrage of attacks from Iraq, Gutierrez introduced Omar Govea and Erick Aguirre to replace the tired Almanza and Calderón.
After a strong punch from Raúl Gudiño on an Iraqi corner kick, Mexico settled the game back down and Marco Granados came into the match for Zúñiga up top. Shortly after, Luis Hernández did well to get to a ball rolling over the endline and managed to clip a cross into the area before it went out of play. Ochoa met the cross at the far post and played a pass back to Rivas who was arriving at the top of the area. Rivas curled his shot just out of the diving goalkeeper’s reach and underlined Mexico’s victory 3-1.
It was a good strike from Rivas who had been involved in everything around the penalty area for Mexico. After the goal, Mexico continued to harry opposition players and maintain its own possession on the ball. Aside from being an effective target forward, Alejandro Díaz is also very good in a high pressure system. Díaz is quite adept at pressuring opposing defenders and deep midfielders to win the ball back or force sub-optimal passes out of the back.
[Paraphrasing from the post-game on-field talk in Spanish]
Raul Gutierrez said that his side had a very good first half in which they showed a tremendous effort both offensively and defensively. The second half started questionably for Mexico as Iraq was able to grow in their play but his players came back strong to end the game well.
Gutierrez also said that the performance from this game will give the team confidence and the result keeps them alive in the competition. He emphasized the strong effort showed by his players and the way that this game showed how the team can rally after a difficult situation like the result against Nigeria.
At the end of the game, Mexico had 63% possession but they were out-shot by Iraq in the second half. The positive result against Iraq meant that Mexico would go head-to-head with Sweden for the second place spot in Group F while Iraq would be eliminated from the World Cup.