Few expected that the first four-game day of this World Cup would end with Saudi Arabia sitting prettiest in Group C but that is the upshot after one of the most famous upsets in the tournament’s history and, to follow up, this far more forgettable stalemate. A goalless draw between Mexico and Poland had little of the drama witnessed in Lusail earlier on Tuesday, but it would not quite be a World Cup without at least one moment of Guillermo Ochoa heroics.
The Mexico goalkeeper stole the show, as he usually does, spectacularly denying Robert Lewandowski from the penalty spot at the start of the second half. Ochoa added to the catalogue of memorable saves that he has accumulated since debuting at this tournament eight years ago, while adding Poland to Brazil and Germany on the list of opponents that he has frustrated on this grandest of stages.
Mexican supporters outnumbered their Polish counterparts by around 10 to one in Stadium 974. There was not much in the way of encouragement here for them if they hope to finally reach “the fifth game” and avoid exiting a World Cup finals at the last-16 stage for the eighth consecutive time, but there was still enough verve and vigour about their play to suggest history could repeat itself once more.
Perhaps the best thing to be said about the first half was that, in a departure from the long periods of stoppage time seen during the early days of this World Cup, it was only extended by two minutes. This started as a scrappy, fractious contest with precious little quality on display but Mexico at least attempted to take the initiative, given that the swathes of green around the arena would settle for nothing less.
Much of El Tri’s threat came down the flanks. Alexis Vega fumbled an opportunity to convert Hirving Lozano’s early cross at close range. That lack of composure was little surprise given the Guadalajara winger had burst into tears during the rendition of the national anthem. Vega did better when meeting another centre, this time for Hector Herrera, and out-jumped Aston Villa’s Matty Cash to nod narrowly past the post.
By far the clearest opening of the first half fell to Mexico’s left-back Jesus Gallardo, who could not get to Luis Chavez’s ball over the top before Wojciech Szczesny, but saw it run through the Poland goalkeeper regardless and towards an empty net. Unfortunately for Gallardo, Szczesny recovered in time before he could reach the loose ball, and the chance of a simple tap-in came to nothing.
Poland simply could not get going. Ceding possession but with barely any threat in transition, they looked both toothless at one end and vulnerable at the other. Their one attempt of the first half was a harmless Lewandowski header in the sixth minute. It was also his only touch inside Mexico’s penalty area. His next, however, would finally bring the contest to life.
Nine minutes after the restart, Lewandowski tussled with Hector Moreno for a loose ball in Mexico’s box. He appeared to have lost out but after a counter-attack came to nothing at the other end, referee Christopher Beath was called to consult his monitor. Moreno’s handful of the Barcelona striker’s shirt was considered enough to constitute a foul, in keeping with the penalty calls that went in Iran and Argentina’s favour at this World Cup.
After a career of converting nine out of 10 times from the spot, even El Tri’s travelling legion appeared resigned to Lewandowski scoring. Yet Ochoa has built a reputation on pulling off remarkable saves at this tournament and, at 37 years of age, he still had another up his sleeve. Diving low to his left, he thrust two big palms behind Lewandowski’s efforts, then watched his defence block, scrap and scramble away all attempts to latch onto the rebound.
If the awarding of the penalty was debatable, the outcome of it only felt fair. Poland had done little to deserve taking the lead up until that point and still struggled to create thereafter. Mexico returned to looking the likeliest without fashioning much clear-cut – a speculative Vega attempt from range not troubling Szczesny. Given his side had the greater momentum for much of it, Mexico coach Tata Martino will likely view this as a missed opportunity, while his opposite number Czeslaw Michniewicz may think it a lucky escape.
Only one team in Group C can be truly happy with their showing in this first round of the group stages and, against all odds and expectations, it is Saudi Arabia.