After an opening win over Cameroon and a hard-earned draw with Brazil, only Croatia stands between Mexico and the knockout stages.
A win or draw against Croatia on Monday in Recife and Herrera’s side will have gone undefeated in the group stage for the first time since 2002 and will march onto the round of 16 with a swagger in its step, a sense of confidence and real belief that the strength of the group can carry this team past Netherlands or Chile to a historic quarterfinal.
The moment of truth has arrived for El Tri, eight months after disastrous and emotional finale to CONCACAF qualifying in which goals from the United States helped Mexico past Panama and over the Brazil 2014 line, at least to get into the intercontinental playoff.
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There is a fine balance between success and failure, especially at this World Cup that given us few easy games and a number of shocks, the prime candidate being Mexico’s CONCACAF rival Costa Rica’s magnificent form.
Monday’s game won’t be easy. Whichever one of Croatia or Mexico doesn’t advance (assuming Brazil gets the job done against Cameroon) will feel hard-done by.
Mexico deserved a 3-0 victory over Cameroon on the balance of play (and the two incorrectly disallowed goals) in its first game and pulled off an unlikely draw against the odds against host Brazil. Teams will go through in weaker groups than Group A with four points.
But then Croatia could make the same case. The penalty awarded against it in the World Cup opener against Brazil was soft to say the least and changed the game. Then against a shambolic Cameroon, the Europeans put on a display that could’ve ended with more than the four goals they did score.
The key to the game for Mexico is likely to be neutralizing Croatia’s midfield — especially Luka Modric — and keeping Mario Mandzukic as quiet as possible.
In that respect, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera and Jose Juan Vazquez provide enough running and energy to close down Croatia’s midfielders and spring the team forward into attack.
Down the wings, Herrera has already expressed his concerns about the problems Croatia can cause in setting up Mandzukic, but he’ll be looking for El Tri’s wing backs Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun to counter that by doing damage in the attacking third and try to take advantage of Croatia’s aging fullbacks Darijo Srna and Danijel Pranjic.
If anything, Croatia will be the team looking to counter, with Herrera stating his side will go out with the intention of winning the game and scoring first.
It’s a bold, risky strategy from a Mexico that drives forward and is set to start the same XI for its third straight game. Fortunately, it’s a style that has served the team well so far and another performance of equal intensity as that against Cameroon and Brazil should see El Tri into the round of 16 for the sixth consecutive World Cup.