It is time to put some of the traditional thinking about Mexico’s opponents on Sunday to bed.
The popular image of the Netherlands is one of attacking, flowing, total football. With Louis van Gaal – the brains steering the classic Ajax team of the 90s - at the helm, the idea is further entrenched.
But the Netherlands committed most fouls of any team in the group stage of Brazil 2014 and averaged less than 40 percent possession over the three games. Chile’s manager Jorge Sampaoli accused the Dutch of “only defending” in the final group game, which irked Van Gaal.
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What Van Gaal has done is be practical with the tools at his disposal. He has still produced a team that can both win the battle and come to life in the final third, as ten goals in three games in the group stage of the World Cup would indicate.
Arguably the best player at the World Cup (although Lionel Messi might have something to say about that) has been Arjen Robben, who has three goals and been a constant threat alongside Robin Van Persie, who scored twice last time he played against Mexico.
And although it seems long ago, the Netherlands dispatched the reigning holder Spain 5-1 in a display that will go down as one of the great performances by a Dutch team at a World Cup.
Mexico will be emboldened by its performance thus far in Brazil, but as it seeks to reach the quarterfinal stage for the first time ever outside the country’s borders, there should be no underestimating the task. Sunday’s match is every bit as difficult as that one in Johannesburg four years ago against Argentina.
On the positive side, Australia provided the template of how to take the game to the Netherlands and cause them problems at the back. You’d think that Mexico – the World Cup’s best defense so far – would have that little bit extra quality than Australia to be more effective at both ends of the pitch.
The hot humid conditions in Fortaleza with a 1 p.m. kick off (local time) should also suit Mexico against the European team and the suggestion from Miguel Herrera is that El Tri will play in a similar way as it did against Croatia, not sitting back and defending, but wearing the opposition down and hitting them in the last 20 minutes when tiredness sets in. Javier Hernandez could again have an important role to play off the bench.
Carlos Salcido has been chosen by Herrera to replace Jose Juan Vazquez in the holding midfield role, according to reports, which was the obvious choice considering the veteran’s experience, but his speed is a major worry. Salcido’s task on Sunday will be to nullify the on-form Wesley Sneijder.
Elsewhere, Mexico’s lineup is set to be the same, with Hernandez again on the bench.
Guillermo Ochoa will be in goal, with Rafa Marquez, Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and Hector Moreno the center backs; Paul Aguilar will be on the right flank with Miguel Layun on the left; Salcido anchors the midfield, with the dynamic duo of Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera ahead of him. Upfront, the Oribe Peralta/Giovani Dos Santos partnership is set to continue.
So far this World Cup, the vast majority of those starters have performed. Against Croatia, only Layun, Peralta and Dos Santos were average or below their normal standard. The same needs to happen again against the Netherlands if Mexico does have a chance.
All the noises coming out of the Mexican camp are positive. The players seem focused on building on that fine Olympic win two years ago in London and making history once again. It seems like a happy place to be.
If Mexico can get to grips with the Netherlands’ 3-4-1-2 formation, keep Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder quiet, outfox the wily Van Gaal and advance to a quarterfinal against Greece or Costa Rica, the achievement will be considerable, especially when you think where this Mexico side was just one year ago.
And if the shackles are broken and El Tri get past the round of 16 for the first time since 1986, anything really is possible in the closing stages of Brazil 2014.