Mexico beat Saudi Arabia in their final group game, but the 2-1 scoreline was not enough to jump ahead of Poland in the Group C standings as El Tri exit the World Cup before the knockout rounds for the first time since 1978.
Goal difference was ultimately the deciding factor, with Salem Al-Dawsari breaking Mexican hearts deep into stoppage time after Henry Martin and Luis Chavez had put them on the verge of the last 16 if they could find another goal.
Mexico had a glorious opportunity within the first three minutes that Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais was equal to. Orbelin Pineda’s through ball played in Alexis Vega, whose shot was immediately smothered by Al-Owais rushing off his line.
Not much more time was on the clock before Al-Owais had to push an awkward ball clear before Martin could get his head to it in the six-yard box.
Both sides started at an aggressive tempo – the tone was set before kick-off with a set of exuberant anthems – and Saudi soon went close when Mohamed Kanno sent a free-kick narrowly over the bar.
Midway through the first half, Al-Owais made two more fairly routine saves, one from Luis Chavez and the other from Pineda – the sting was taken off the latter effort by a last-ditch tackle.
By the closing stages of the half, the game had become bitty and tempers threatened to boil over on more than occasion as both teams continued to go at it. But things did pick up again in stoppage time and a better connection off Sultan Al-Ghannam’s head might have given Saudi the lead.
Having been denied by Al-Owais earlier on, Martin found the breakthrough right after the restart. In truth, he couldn’t miss, tapping in from a couple of yards after a clever near post flick from Cesar Montes, up from the back at a Mexico corner.
El Tri quickly capitalised on that momentum when Chavez, who hadn’t been scared to shoot from distance all night, sent a sublime free-kick flying into the top corner.
Saudi Arabia were stunned and were inches away from being 3-0 down straight after that, with only an offside flag keeping the deficit at two goals when Hirving Lozano found the net. Just after the hour mark, Lozano was denied another potential goal by Al-Owais’ sprawling right hand.
Martin lacked composure when he blazed a volley over the bar, while it took a spectacular Al-Owais save to stop another Chavez free-kick bound for the opposite top corner to his earlier goal. Pineda also narrowly missed the bottom corner with a curling low effort.
Mexico had the ball in the net again with only a few minutes of the 90 left as substitute Uriel Antuna fed the ball underneath an onrushing Al-Owais, but he failed to time his run and the flag went up. Al-Owais beat away a Lozano free-kick as stoppage time began.
But as Mexico pushed and pushed to get the third goal to send them through, Saudi Arabia put together their first meaningful attack of the second half, capitalising on the spaces left open, to score a very neat goal as Al-Dawsari finished neatly beyond Guillermo Ochoa.
Saudi Arabia vs Mexico: Player ratings
1. Saudi Arabia (4-5-1)
GK: Mohammed Al-Owais - 8/10 - Had plenty to do from the very start, made a number of good stops and Mexico aren't in the last 16 because of his saves. Couldn't be blamed for the goals.
RB: Sultan Al-Ghannam - 5/10 - Missed a really good headed chance at 0-0 that proved crucial in hindsight.
CB: Hassan Al-Tambakti - 6/10 - Had the upper hand in a first half physical battle but was second best when Mexico increased the pace and tempo.
CB: Abdulelah Al-Amri - 6/10 - A little wasteful in possession but made a few decent tackles and blocks in amongst the chaos.
LB: Ali Al-Bulaihi - 5/10 - Unable to shake off a first half injury.
RM: Firas Al-Buraikan - 5/10 - Played on the fringes of the game.
CM: Ali Al-Hassan - 4/10 - Only lasted one half but struggled to imprint himself on the game.
CM: Saud Abdulhamid - 6/10 - Impressive defensive performance. Shifted over to left-back when Al-Bulaihi was forced off.
CM: Mohamed Kanno - 7/10 - Went close with a first half free-kick. Put himself about all over the pitch.
LM: Salem Al-Dawsari (c) - 6/10 - Too few touches for much of the game but broke Mexican hearts in stoppage time.
ST: Saleh Al-Shehri - 5/10 - Struggled to really hold the ball up and bring others into play.
SUB: Riyadh Sharahili (37' for Al-Bulaihi) - 5/10
SUB: Abdullah Madu (46' for Al-Hassan) - 6/10
SUB: Abdulrahman Al-Aboud (62' for Al-Shehri) - 5/10
SUB: Hattan Bahebri (88' for Al-Ghannam) - 7/10
Manager: Herve Renard - 5/10 - Forced into changes earlier than he would have hoped. Also couldn't light a fire under his team at half-time the way he had previously done in the win over Argentina.
2. Mexico (4-2-3-1)
GK: Guillermo Ochoa - 6/10 - Largely a spectator. Beaten at the end.
RB: Jorge Sanchez - 6/10 - Got forward plenty in support of the attack.
CB: Cesar Montes - 7/10 - Lovely assist for the crucial opening goal.
CB: Hector Moreno - 6/10 - Didn't win his aerial duels but decent on the ground and in possession.
LB: Jesus Gallardo - 7/10 - Got forward and put a number of teasing crosses into the penalty area.
CM: Edson Alvarez - 6/10 - Arguably fortunate he wasn't further punished when laying a hand on the referee right after getting booked and continued to walk a disciplinary tightrope.
CM: Luis Chavez - 8/10 - Often willing to try his luck from distance and eventually scored one of the goals of the tournament.
RM: Hirving Lozano - 8/10 - Really turned up the pressure in the second half and was always asking questions.
AM: Orbelin Pineda - 7/10 - Creative livewire for El Tri from the start.
LM: Alexis Vega - 6/10 - Thwarted by a good early save from Al-Owais.
ST: Henry Martin - 7/10 - Struggled to physically compete in the first half but clever movement made him a threat and he was rewarded with a goal. Missed a great chance to score a volley.
SUB: Uriel Antuna (46' for Vega) - 6/10
SUB: Raul Jimenez (77' for Martin) - 5/10
SUB: Carlos Rodriguez (77' for Pineda) - 5/10
SUB: Rogelio Funes Mori (86' for Alvarez) - N/A
SUB: Kevin Alvarez (86' for Sanchez) - N/A
Manager: Gerardo Martino - 6/10 - This ended up being his last game as Mexico coach. His team finally fired up in the second half but it was too little too late in the end.