Mexico was masterful in the second half scoring three goals and booking their ticket to the Round of 16. Three late goals that seemed to come continuously one after another claimed victory for El Tri 3-1 against Croatia on Monday.
The victory gave Mexico 7 points in Group A, tied with Brazil who won the group on goal differential. Mexico happily settles for second place and will play Netherlands who won Group B earlier with a 2-0 victory over Chile.
Croatia had many opportunities early, as they were able to find space in the Mexican zone with ease. Corner kicks were extremely important for Croatia, as it is one of the best ways to get the ball to Mandzukic and take advantage of his height, athleticism and aerial skills.
The first fifteen minutes of the match, Croatia controlled all of the possession early. I wrote how important it was for Mexico to control the possession and therefore control the pace.
Mexico’s first real chance came in the 16th minute when Mexico’s Oribe Peralta, struck a laser off his left foot that hit off the post in the top right corner of the match.
Simultaneously, Brazil’s Neymar scored his third goal of the tournament for Brazil, giving them a 1-0 lead and silencing the crowd in Recife as a Brazil win meant one of the teams in this match would be going home.
You could feel the tension in the match early, especially after Neymar’s goal. Most expected that this would be an elimination match, but I don’t think anyone expected it to become a realization so early.
At the 26-minute mark, the arena, mostly filled with Mexican fans erupted when Cameroon scored the equalizer and stunned Brazil. The score flashed across the stadium, prompting many to stand and applaud. If somehow Cameroon could come back to beat the hosts, than both Croatia and Mexico would advance.
It appeared most of the action was coming from area scoreboard in Recife which showed Brazil’s Neymar having scored his second goal of the match and giving Brazil the lead 2-1. With the latest update you knew the intensity would increase for Croatia.
Mexico’s four-time captain Rafa Marquez received a yellow card in the 39th minute for a tackle from behind. He angrily yelled at the referee, not for the foul he committed, but for the blatant no call on a handball at the other end by Croatia.
At halftime, Mexico found themselves in a very familiar situation, in a 0-0 draw for the third game in a row. Mexico is one of only two teams to keep a clean sheet through the first two games of the tournament.
As the two teams stepped on the pitch for the second half, Croatia, needing a victory to advance to the Round of 16, stepped higher and brought more players forward to try and score the go-ahead goal. A risky strategy that left a lot of open space in the backfield.
Croatia tried to get the ball early and often to Mario Mandzukic in the second half. The crowd became even more vocal around the 50-minute mark, prompting the ESPN broadcasters to say “What happened? Did Cameroon score?” the audible noise that could not be deciphered as cheers or groans, were for a third Brazilian goal by Fred, giving Brazil a two goal lead and most certainly enough to advance through Group A no matter what happened.
Croatia continued to attack as they approached time. How would both teams handle the moment? As the scoreless tie continued, confidence grew for the Mexican fans and players while frustration and desperation began to take over for the Croatian players.
Tempers boiled over in the 65th minute when a shot by Guardado clearly touched the arms of a Croatian defender for a handball. The play occurred in the box and should have resulted in a yellow card and a penalty kick for Mexico. However the referee missed the call, which lead to both teams yelling at the referee and one another.
We knew in the second half that one of two things were going to happen: either Croatia would score the ever so important go ahead goal and then park the bus as they tried to move on to the second round, or the risky strategy of Croatian coach Niko Kovac to move his men forward in order to score a goal would backfire, leading to plenty of time and space for the Mexican counter attack.
The latter finally occurred when the goal that everyone was waiting for finally came in the 71st minute off a set piece by Mexico. El Senor Capitan, Rafa Marquez, highlighted what could have been his final game of his career. The goal was a brilliant header by the Mexico captain and more importantly all but secured Mexico’s seat in the second round.
The flood gates opened and the stadium erupted just minutes later as El Principale, Andres Guardado sent a shot off his favorable left foot into the top left corner of the net. A beautiful pass by Oribe Peralta set up the shot.
The third goal came in the 81st minute when Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez finally proved his worth on the World Cup stage and the coming out party for the Manchester United star began. Chicharito scored off a corner that was served into the box, tipped off a teammate and Chicharito snuck around his flanker and headed it in the goal.
“We said that we wanted to make history. I think we did it in the best way possible, scoring goals, playing a good futbol, and showing what we said in the interviews.”Chicharito said after the match.
Croatia finally got on the scoreboard in the 87th minute, as Persic slotted it past ‘Meme’ Ochoa ending Mexico’s streak of 275 minutes without relinquishing a goal.
Minutes later, late substitute, Ante Rebic was given a red card for Croatia as he challenged the Mexico’s Rodriguez. It was a nasty foul that most certainly deserved the Croatian attacker to see red. Rebic would have been suspended had Croatia come back to win, but with the result the red card is moot.
What an improbably journey for El Tri, just months ago, Mexico was on the outside looking in. Their World Cup dreams destroyed. Had it not been for the United States’ Graham Zusi, Mexico would have never had a second chance to play New Zealand for a World Cup birth. Zusi’s worthless goal for the U.S. became the motivator for Mexico to move on to the World Cup and now on to the Round of 16.
Mexico showed heart and class on their way to the knockout stage and will now become a force to be reckoned with as they play the Netherlands on Sunday. A team not known for their defense, has locked up and played beautifully through group play.
Mexico will meet the Netherlands in the next round, a team that made it all the way to the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa against Spain. The match won’t be easy, but Mexico believes they can win.
“Holland is a good national team with unbelievable players, but we want to make history. If we want to do that, we need to beat Netherlands.” said Chicharito.
Mexico won the final game of group play for the first time since 1986. With his goal, Rafael Marquez has now scored in each of the last three World Cups. Mexico has now made it out of the Group Stage in each of their last seven World Cup appearances.