Mexico’s Olympic gold medal dream crushed by Brazil on penalties: Lineup choice, substitute struggles sink El Tri

That one felt like it could’ve easily been the tournament final.

Mexico and Brazil, the last two men’s Olympic gold medal winners, faced off in an utterly compelling, if unspectacular, men’s Olympic semifinal which was so evenly matched that it finished scoreless and needed a penalty-kick shootout to resolve the affair. And that marked the end of the gold-medal quest for a Mexican Olympic team that will instead play in the bronze-medal match after it failed to convert two of its penalty attempts (Eduardo Aguirre and Johan Vasquez), while Brazil scored on all its shots against Mexican goalkeeper captain Guillermo Ochoa, who guessed correctly on each, but couldn’t make a stop.

Facing one of the tournament favorites and the 2016 gold-medal winners, El Tri met its match and was unable to show off the sparkling attacking soccer of previous matches. The best looks for Mexico came on a series of chances to end the first half, but otherwise the team’s typically dazzling forwards were quiet.

MORE: Men’s Olympic soccer schedule

Alexis Vega had the best ideas for Mexico, but the attacking subs that came on in the second half didn’t provide much of a spark. On the other end, a strong defensive performance along with solid goalkeeping by Ochoa were able to neutralize a Brazilian side that came closest to scoring through tournament top scorer Richarlison, whose header bounced off the post and crossed the face of the goal with eight minutes left.

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Here are the key takeaways from the match:

Why didn’t Charly start?

It was a real surprise to see holding midfielder Joaquin Esquivel get the start ahead of Carlos “Charly” Rodriguez, who was available for selection after serving a one-game suspension. Fans will only wonder how different that first half could have looked with Rodriguez’s dribbling skills and passing vision on the field.

He eventually came on to start the second half, but there were moments in the first half when Mexico was in sore need of someone who could grab a hold of the game in possession and slow things down. That’s Rodriguez’s game. His resourcefulness on the ball could’ve been helpful unlocking his teammates in the attack when they were freshest.

The more defensive-minded Esquivel was forced to step in for the suspended Rodriguez in the quarterfinal against South Korea, but even though Rodriguez hasn’t been in top form during these Olympics, he’s still a better option than Esquivel when available. Manager Jaime Lozano overthought this one.

Subs let Mexico down

El Tri used all six available subs in the match (an additional sub is provided for the extra time session), but the fresh legs weren’t able to provide a much-needed boost to the attack. Roberto “Piojo” Alvarado, Eduardo Aguirre, Ricardo Angulo and Diego Lainez combined for a single shot in their time on the field. Lainez and Angulo were especially ineffective on the wings, and while Angulo didn’t even try to be dangerous, Lainez often couldn’t get past his defender, giving up the ball on multiple occasions.

With few ideas on offense, Mexico’s only real threat after the halftime break came from a set piece: an 85th minute Cesar Montes header finishing in the hands of the Brazilian ‘keeper.

Outside of the two backup goalkeepers, Mexico has had to use its entire roster during these Olympics on account of player rotation, injury and suspension. The forwards may have failed them against Brazil, but the reserve defenders stepped up in a big way throughout the tournament. The latest to do so against Brazil was Jesus Angulo filling in for the suspended Jorge Sanchez at left back and having to face the dangerous Antony all night.

Brazil’s diving antics

Brazil knew this was going to be a tight game and its players were looking for an advantage any way they could get it, including some diving and embellishment. Mexico were fortunate the officials didn’t fall for it.

The most egregious instance came in the 29th minute when the referee pointed to the spot for contact on Douglas Luiz (below). But there was a video review of the play and the referee saw that Luiz cleverly sought out the contact and sold it well, and he reversed his on-field decision.

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Setting gamesmanship aside, Brazil was a strong side and the Selecao played with an edge. The team’s 38-year-old captain Dani Alves was everywhere and Olympics top scorer Richarlison was a constant threat alongside right winger Antony. Had they received some production from left winger Paulinho and creative midfielder Claudinho — both were invisible in the game — the Brazilians may have found a way past Mexico in regulation.

”We had a hard day of work because of what the opponent offered today,” Alves said after the match. “[Mexico] battles really well in matches, but I think we deserve to be in the final with all due respect to Mexico.”

Next up: Bronze medal match

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With a medal on the line, it shouldn’t be hard for Mexico to get up for its final match of the tournament against host Japan. Plus, there will be an element of payback to dish out after Japan beat Mexico in the group stage. That was the only match during these Olympics in which Mexico were caught off guard, and they won’t commit the same mistakes twice against a Japan team that will be motivated to claim a medal on home soil.

It’s also a final chance for the players based in Mexico to leave an impression on scouts in an attempt to secure a big-money transfer move to one of the top European leagues. Players like Alexis Vega and Sebastian Cordova are expected to be some of the next young stars to join the like sof Diego Lainez, who plays for Real Betis in Spain.

Mexico will have all its players available for the match except for injured left back Erick Aguirre, who fell injured against Japan back on July 25 and hasn’t played since. After getting a taste of Japan’s pressure and playing style, El Tri should be better prepared to handle the opening of the match, a phase which ultimately decided the 2-1 group-stage loss with both Japan goals coming in the opening 11 minutes.

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