On a night when a tie would have been enough to earn a place in the round of 16, Mexico routed Croatia in a confidence-boosting win that sets up a date with the Netherlands.RECIFE, Brazil — If you closed your eyes on Monday at Arena Perrnambuco, you would have thought you were at Estadio Azteca. Strains of Cielito Lindo echoed through the building well before kickoff as green covered a large portion of the stadium. It mattered little that we were almost 5,000 miles from Mexico City. El Tri fans made their way here in droves to urge Mexico on in a match it could not afford to lose.
Miguel Herrera’s men responded with a performance that won’t seen be forgotten by Mexico supporters. They needed only a draw but played for the win, and in the process thoroughly outplayed a Croatia team that had just two weeks earlier given Brazil all it could handle.
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Mexico never looked troubled by the Croats, even as their first-half dominance failed to produce goals, but it was in the way El Tri kept attacking and kept the pressure on Croatia that we saw the best Mexican performance of the World Cup.
Rafa Marquez turned back the clock, scoring on a header and flicking another that helped set up Javier Hernandez’s goal. The 35-year-old Marquez showed his age at times, committing some bad turnovers, but he still managed a strong showing in midfield, helping El Tri neutralize Croatia’s talented midfield, while also showing he could still be a threat on the offensive side of things.
Marquez wasn’t alone in stepping his game up on Monday. Hector Herrera showed why he’s considered one of the best young players in CONCACAF and Andres Guardado flashed some of the dazzling wing play we had grown accustomed to seeing from him in year’s past.
The reality is it was truly a complete team performance by a Mexico side that Herrera has molded into a selfless one. No small feat considering the shambles the team was in when Herrera took over.
Mexico’s desire to go for the win should offer the U.S. national team a blueprint to follow when the Americans face Germany on Thursday. At no point did Mexico look content to settle for one point, and it never played like it. Even after making it 2-0, El Tri continued to attack. Obviously Germany presents a significantly tougher challenge than Croatia, but the message is clear for the Americans: Playing for a draw is the best way to set yourself up for a loss.
The resounding victory helped Mexico join Costa Rica in the round of 16, and improved CONCACAF’s overall tournament record to 5-2-2. It has been a dream tournament for a region that has struggled for respect for some time, but if the Americans follow El Tri and Los Ticos into the knockout rounds, the rest of the world will have little choice but to start having more respect for a region that is growing stronger.
As impressive as Mexico’s showing was, both on the field and in the stands, El Tri has a much tougher challenge now in facing the Netherlands in the next round. Mexico will be the considerable underdog, but after finishing unbeaten in a group it wasn't considered a lock to advance from, the Mexicans will head to Fortaleza to take on a Netherlands team that just finished a perfect 3-0 in a very tough group.
Mexico will head into that match with the confidence of having just demolished a good Croatia team, and having kept Brazil scoreless. Mexico will also be dealing with history though, and the knowledge that the round of 16 has meant the end of El Tri’s past five World Cups.
That history isn’t lost on Mexico, with Andres Guardado saying after the match that nothing El Tri has done at this World Cup will matter if Mexico loses to the Netherlands. He absolutely has a point, because simply reaching the knockout rounds isn’t enough anymore for a nation that has done so in more consecutive World Cups than all but two teams (Brazil and Germany being the only nations with longer streaks).
What Mexico hasn’t done is ventured to the rarified air of the World Cup quarterfinals and beyond. That alone will satisfy all those thousands of Mexico fans who have traveled to Brazil hoping to see their team show improvement. On Monday night at least, Mexico had that look of a better team, of a promising team, of one worthy of all the support its fans provide.
On Saturday against the Netherlands, El Tri will have the chance to repay that faith and send their green army home overjoyed at the fact a team that nearly missed the World Cup was able to recover and come together in a way few could have imagined.