Mexico underlines status as a favorite for Olympic gold with win over France

Mexico stamped itself as a favorite for its second Olympic soccer title in three tries Thursday, riding second-half goals from Alexis Vega, Sebastián Córdova, Uriel Antuna and Eduardo Aguirre to a surprisingly comfortable 4-1 win over France in the first game of group play at the Tokyo Games.

France got its only score from André-Pierre Gignac, who plays club soccer in Mexico with Tigres, on a second-half penalty kick.

France, which qualified for Tokyo by reaching the semifinals of the UEFA U-21 championships, a tournament played more than two years ago, had hoped to use its first Olympic appearance since 1996 to showcase its deep youth-development system, one second only to Brazil in terms of domestic players exported around the globe.

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But Paris Saint-Germain blocked Kylian Mbappe, the country’s best player, from competing. When other clubs followed, coach Sylvain Ripoll had to scramble to build a roster, with just two players from the qualifying team in uniform for Thursday’s Olympic opener.

Mexico punched its ticket to Tokyo by winning the CONCACAF pre-Olympic tournament last spring. Ten of the 18 players who suited up Thursday — all but one of whom play in the domestic Liga MX — were on that team. And the difference in chemistry and teamwork showed Thursday.

The game was among the most anticipated of the Tokyo Games. But after a scoreless and relatively even first half, the 2012 Olympic champions pulled away with Vega getting on the end of a Diego Lainez cross in the 47th minute to put Mexico in front to stay. Vega nearly doubled the lead two minutes later but his left-footed shot from the center of the area was saved by French keeper Paul Bernardoni.

That was part of a flurry that saw Mexico put four tries on goal in the first 10 minutes of the second half, the final coming in the 54th minute when Córdova, the leading scorer in the CONCACAF qualifiers, ran on to a through ball from Carlos Rodríguez, then beat Bernardoni with a left-footed shot inside the left post.

France halved the deficit in the 69th minute when Gignac converted from the penalty spot but Antuna, the former Galaxy winger, pulled that goal back in the 80th minute off an assist from Vega. Aguirre closed out the scoring a minute into stoppage time.

France will play South Africa in its second match Sunday while Mexico will face Japan. The top two teams in each of the four, four-team groups will advance to the knockout stage.