Hernandez 64, Blanco (pen) 79
Mexico left the World Cup hopes of France in peril with a deserved 2-0 victory in Polokwane. Goals from substitutes Javier Hernandez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the latter from the penalty spot, earned the Mexicans the three points with the French still searching for their first goal of the tournament.
Carlos Vela wasted a glorious chance to give Mexico an early lead when he blazed over from an angle. Rafael Marquez’s eighth minute ball over the top had left three Mexicans through on goal but Vela rushed his shot when he had time and options. Nicolas Anelka fired over the bar moments later, before Guillermo Franco turned Eric Abidal and curled just over the bar as the game got off to a pulsating start. Carlos Salcido twice came close, first firing just wide from 20 yards before he beat Bacary Sagna down the left and cut inside but his shot was straight at Hugo Lloris. Salcido was getting forward well from left-back and his cross in the 33rd minute caused Lloris more problems. The French keeper could only push the ball onto the head of Pablo Barrera but it flew wide of the post.
Mexico were ahead on 63 minutes when substitute Hernandez broke the offside trap and found himself in acres of space with just Lloris to beat. The new Manchester United striker kept his cool to round the keeper and slot home to give his side a deserved lead. With 11 minutes remaining it was 2-0, thanks to Blanco’s penalty. Barrera breezed past Patrice Evra on the right before being brought down by Abidal in the area. Blanco took an extended run up and powered the ball right in the bottom corner beyond Lloris’ full-stretch dive. Blanco nearly played Giovani dos Santos in for a third but Lloris was out of his area quickly to clear with two minutes to play.
Although the game was a more exciting spectacle than France’s last match with Uruguay, their tactical problems from the first game were still prevalent. At the peak of attack, Anelka was still going on a walkabout too often. France needed a player to attack the ball in the penalty area but Anelka was again developing a habit of dropping deep and wide. It would have made far more sense to have started with a genuine striker like Andre-Pierre Gignac up front alongside Anelka, allowing him to float but also keeping his finishing instincts. Instead, when Gignac did appear at half-time, it was as a direct replacement when the completely ineffectual Sidney Govou should have been sacrificed instead.
France were playing like a collection of individuals rather than as a cohesive team. Franck Ribery was supposed to be the creative hub sat behind the forwards but he seemed more interested in creating opportunities for himself than for his teammates. In fairness to the Bayern Munich man, there was precious little movement ahead of him, with the attacking elements of the team bunching about in areas where they posed little danger. If Raymond Domenech has lost the influence over the team to sort it out, surely as a collection of mature adults the players could try communicating with each other and make sure everyone knows their role in the team for the greater good?
The loss of Vela after half an hour was a blow for Mexico, although he had been guilty of wasting their best opening. His replacement Barrera is often brought on as an impact substitute in the second half and is more of a winger than a striker. Whilst this did make sense in a front three, would it have made a bolder statement if Vela had been replaced with Javier Hernandez? The diminutive striker is perhaps more of a direct understudy to Franco in the squad but when he was brought on later for Efrain Juarez, he was pitched into Vela’s usual territory on the left of the attacking trio with Barrera moving back into midfield – at least until Franco was replaced by Cuauhtemoc Blanco when Hernandez was allowed to play more centrally. With Mexico enjoying themselves in the French half before the break, they might have benefitted from the superior finishing skills of Hernandez for that extra period of time, especially with the French defence proving to be there for the taking.
The result means that a draw between Mexico and Uruguay would eliminate the French, regardless of their result against South Africa. On the balance of the four games in Group A so far, it would be the fairest outcome with Uruguay, superb against Bafana Bafana on Wednesday, and Mexico comfortable winners against the French, the opening games both resulting in tame draws. That both Mexico and Uruguay will likely play an honest game and attack each other will be France’s one saving grace, as a victory for either team on Tuesday will open up the chance of progression for the French. They have to beat the South Africans to have any hope and even that will not be easy based on the toothless attack shown by France in both matches so far.