Mexico

Croatia gives Mexico a punch in the nose ahead of World Cup

3/28/18
Mexico
Mexico v Croatia
Croatia
Friendlies
Between a disappointing result and losing several players because of injuries, El Tri have to pick themselves off the mat after Tuesday's game
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Mexico walked out of AT&T Stadium a much less confident team than it was when it entered.

After spending the past two days frustrated about a Croatia team that released six of its stars to return to their European teams, El Tri was given a punch in the nose by the Croatian players who remained. Ivan Rakitic's penalty kick was the difference in a 1-0 defeat that closes out Mexico's preparations ahead of manager Juan Carlos Osorio naming his World Cup list.

It might not be fair to say El Tri expected a victory, but they certainly were riding high. Between their 3-0 victory Friday against Iceland and playing an understrength Croatia team, Mexico expected to close things out on a high.

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Instead, things went poorly. Osorio went with a 3-4-3 formation he'd never put on the field before in the first half and was overwhelmed by a Croatia midfield that, while not the nation's best, still had Barcelona's Rakitic and Real Madrid's Mateo Kovacic in it. The La Liga duo was able to take advantage of Pachuca midfiedler Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez, who was tasked with stopping the Croatian attacks until Osorio gave him help by putting Jesus Molina next to him in the second half. He also returned to a back four, though it was difficult to keep players on the field.

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"We're aware that we had, in general terms, a bad match," Mexico captain Andres Guardado said after the match.

It wasn't just the metaphorical black eye Croatia handed Mexico on the field. El Tri will leave Texas a less healthy team, though it's no fault of the Croatians. They didn't play dirty, but several defenders ended up worse for the wear - or maybe worse. Nestor Araujo's knee injury was serious enough that he was taken to the hospital. Losing him for the World Cup would be a serious blow. So too would issues for Carlos Salcedo or Diego Reyes turning into something more serious than it appeared when they were taken off the field. Reyes limped off after the match in the mixed zone, but reports now indicate Salcedo has a fractured clavicle that could put him out for several weeks.

A loss to Croatia, the little punch, you can take. "Burrito" Hernandez is not going to the World Cup, much less starting against Germany. Another summer of defensive injuries, though, would spell disaster. Losing two defenders in the Confederations Cup ended any hope that Mexico could play the way it wanted to against teams like Germany and Portugal. The group stage match and the third-place game last summer against the two European powers provided an excellent contrast. Without Reyes or Salcedo healthy, Mexico struggled. When at full strength, Mexico could hang.

"A huge setback, two injuries that at the moment are very serious with the chance to become worse, so if you ask me, I can digest the result, but the injuries? I’m very concerned and very unhappy," Osorio said. "I think that when a professional player in any sport has an injury, it’s a setback, never mind two or three months before the World Cup. For these guys the World Cup means so much. I can honestly say that I am deeply sorry for what happened today."

Mexico has the chin to take the punch. It's worth remembering that before that first trip to Russia El Tri also suffered a defeat against Croatia and ended up with a decent tournament. A long-term injury to Araujo would be another punch Osorio's squad can withstand. Hugo Ayala could step into the role, or Salcedo could slide over.

Multiple defensive injuries, though, would be a knockout blow. There are concerning elements to how Mexico played Tuesday, but in the end the biggest worry for Osorio will be the health of his team with the trip to Russia now on the horizon.