Mexico's Carlos Vela finds World Cup redemption as El Tri on the brink of knockouts
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Three thoughts from Rostov Arena as Mexico defeated South Korea 2-1 to take control of Group F at the 2018 World Cup with goals from Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez.
1. Vela pulls the strings for rampant Mexico
Vela had a long wait to step up and strike Mexico's 26th minute opener past Jo Hyeon-Woo from the penalty spot. Who knows what was going through his mind? Perhaps a more emotional character mind would've thought about four years ago and the abuse he took when he failed to show up for the World Cup in Brazil, or what missing would do to his confidence. And then there was the sad passing of the LAFC player's grandfather last Sunday back in Mexico after El Tri's 1-0 victory over Germany.
"I hope you left proud of me," read Vela's message to his grandfather after what was surely a difficult time away from home.
But Vela put it away and put Mexico on track for another victory in Russia with authority.
This may have only been a penalty goal for Vela, but it felt like redemption; a reconnection with Mexico fans who had shunned him after he rejected a chance to play for the team in Brazil in 2014, when his career was absolutely on a high. The fans shouted his name as he trotted up to take the spot kick; and after he converted it, Vela kissed the crest on his shirt, crossed himself and lapped up the celebration with his teammates.
But it wasn't just the goal. Vela has now put in two performances of the highest quality in Russia, playing off Hernandez and roaming with intent to link play, especially with Mexico's wingers. The arrogance -- not in any way a bad thing when it comes to Vela -- is back in his play, with his close control inviting the opposition in before moving the ball away from them. It gives rhythm to Mexico's attacking.
In Russia, it finally looks like the former Arsenal player belongs and is an important, if not indispensable cog in the Mexican national team.
2. El Tri on the brink of knockout round
This was another promising performance from Mexico and one that will keep the momentum generated from that victory over Germany flowing, even if South Korea's mainly defensive style made it more difficult for El Tri to shine.
The biggest surprise about Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio's starting XI was that there was only one change, with Hugo Ayala exiting for right-back Edson Alvarez and Carlos Salcedo slotting in at center-back. Osorio has still never repeated a starting lineup in two consecutive games since taking over as Mexico coach in the fall of 2015.
In the first half, Mexico had 69 percent possession and largely controlled the game, although South Korea had chances on the break, with Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min unable to finish when through on goal in the 39th minute.
Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was forced into action in the 56th from a sharp Ki Sung-yueng shot from the left side of the box, but El Tri had the better of the chances and managed to get the vital second.
Hector Herrera won the ball in the Korean half in the 66th. Then Andres Guardado delivered the ball to Hirving Lozano, who passed it to Hernandez. The West Ham United striker cut inside and put Mexico ahead at a time when there was growing frustration about missed opportunity. This was a big goal for a striker who hadn't netted for El Tri since last October. And it would have been all the more meaningful given his 87-year-old grandfather Tomas Balcazar was in attendance. Balcazar netted for Mexico back at the 1954 World Cup.
El Tri may not have been completely clinical, but in terms of sheer grit and hard work in hot and humid temperatures -- it was 33 degrees Celsius at kick-off (91 F) -- against a South Korea side unafraid to break up play with tactical fouls.
Mexico's defenders blocked Korea's shots, and by the 13th minute, left-winger Lozano had made two vital defensive challenges, one of which was in the right-back position and the other close to the 6-yard box.
While some of the more favored teams stumble in Russia, Mexico is doing just fine and has been boosted by the huge traveling support -- around half of the 43,472 -- in Rostov Arena.
By the end, the Mexican fans were singing the name of Osorio, and even the goalkeeper chant that caused the Mexican federation to be fined after opener wasn't heard.
Things are going very well for El Tri, who recorded consecutive wins at a World Cup for the first time since 2002, and are now a virtual lock to reach the round of 16.
3. South Korea over-reliant on Son
This World Cup hasn't been a great advert for football in South Korea. As if anyone didn't know it, Son is the team's best player by a distance. And when you take out Swansea's Ki Sung-Yun, there isn't all that much quality.
The South Korea team was happy to foul at will -- 24 compared to Mexico's seven -- and the main tactic seemed to be to defend deep and try set Son free to run behind Mexico's high defensive line. It looked like it could possibly work in moments, but this South Korea side needed to provide more against a Mexican collective that is really clicking and not reliant on any one individual.
Son eventually got his goal - - a screamer -- in second-half injury time, but it wasn't enough, and South Korea didn't really deserve much from this match, just like it didn't against Sweden in the opening game.
The fact only four of South Korea's 23-players play in Europe tells its own story. The Asian team hasn't covered itself in glory in Russia.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.