Mexico lucks into win over Russia to advance to Confederations Cup semifinals

Mexico’s Hirving Lozano (22) scored the game-winning goal thanks to Igor Akinfeev’s second goalkeeping blunder of the match. (Sporting News)

It took a little luck.

No, actually, it took a lot of luck. And then some more luck. But Mexico has stumbled into the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, where it will likely face Chile or Germany, at the expense of Russia.

For El Tri’s final group stage game, having won and drawn the first two, Juan Carlos Osorio restored his strongest lineup but switched to a 4-3-3 formation against the host nation, which needed a win to advance.

It produced a largely disjointed Mexican performance — messy in the first half, and somewhat improved in the second as Russia appeared to tire. But Mexico’s 2-1 victory on Saturday nevertheless leaned heavily on two moments of misjudgment by Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, not to mention a denied penalty and a missed sitter for a pedestrian opposition.

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Headers by Nestor Araujo and Hirving Lozano gave Mexico the win after a deficit stemming from Aleksandr Samedov’s goal.

Perhaps Russia should have gone ahead sooner. But Fyodor Smolov was denied a penalty in spite of a Video Assistant Referee appeal. Then Smolov hit the post on a shot from outside the box. Mexico failed to clear the ball properly and on the continuation of the play, the Russians went ahead.

A missed header and a whiffed shot weren’t enough for Mexico to clear before the ball fell favorably for Samedov, who coolly curled it around Memo Ochoa:

Had that score held, Russia would have advanced at Mexico’s expense. But five minutes later, a long free kick drifted to the back line. Araujo kind of corkscrewed a header over Akinfeev, who badly misread it, dropping in at the far corner. It was hard to tell if the defender was just trying to head the ball across or to score. But it went in regardless:

Before “Chucky” Lozano scored Mexico’s winner, Russia was disallowed a goal that was blatantly offside. Then, in the 52nd minute, a massive Mexican clearance took an enormous bounce into no-man’s land between the Russian defense and Akinfeev. The latter was slow to respond to it outside of his box. And rather than head it away, he tried to volley it. Lozano snuck in and nodded the ball into the net while Akinfeev kicked him in the chest. By the rules, the goalie should have at least been booked, which he wasn’t:

Just after the hour mark, VAR struck again as Hector Moreno’s goal was disallowed for being offside by a few inches. The goal celebrations had already concluded by then, anticlimactically resetting the score after the fact — once again allowing the misguided pursuit of perfect accuracy to infringe on the joy of the sport.

Even though it hadn’t put the game away, Mexico nevertheless seized control. And when Yuri Zhirkov was sent off in the 68th minute for elbowing Miguel Layun in the face, it all seemed over. Yet Mexico refused to score that third goal in spite of inviting opportunities.

That’s when Igor Smolnikov came streaking up the right but sent a point-blank volley over. He should have equalized.

Russia, in fact, should have done better than to lose this game. Had it fielded a more serviceable goalkeeper, it very well might have. And that should be cause for concern for Mexico. Because Russia is, generously, a pedestrian soccer team. It’s ranked 63rd in the world and it’s really the sort of side El Tri should be rolling over by now, considering its enormous talent and upside.

All the same, Mexico now stands two wins from winning a second Confederations Cup in its history. Nobody who has triumphed in this tournament has gone on to win the World Cup the following summer. But it would still be a nice confidence-builder for a team with the potential to truly make an impact when it returns to Russia next year.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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