The final stage of group play kicks off on Monday and the most important match of the day is the Group A showdown between Mexico and Croatia.

This will be the second ever World Cup match between the two teams, the last one occurring in 2002 in which Mexico won 1-0 on a late penalty kick, eliminating Croatia in the process and advancing to the Round of 16.

Mexico has been simply awful against European opponents in the World Cup. They are 7-23 in their last 30 World Cup matches.

Mexico has managed to keep a clean sheet through their first two matches of the tournament, and will have to do so again if they want to advance to the knockout stage this year. Croatia is packed with fire power on offense after getting back Mario Mandzukic who missed the Croatians first game against Brazil because of a suspension. Mandzukic made his presence felt in Croatia’s game against Cameroon by scoring two goals in Vatrenti’s 4-0 rout of Cameroon.

This game will be decided in the middle of the pitch where Mexico’s Jose Vazquez has the ability to control possession for El Tri. Possession will be key as Croatia’s coach Niko Kovac must attack on offense as they have to score to win the match and advance in the tournament.

Look for Mexico to park the bus as much as possible on defense and hope that Vazquez can command the middle. If so, Mexico will play a style decisively different than they normally do and more like the Italians. Knowing that a draw is all they need to advance, they can afford to sit back and focus on making life difficult for the Croatian attackers. If Croatia over commits, Mexico can quickly move on the counter attack with Vasquez advancing the ball to the ever dangerous Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta. That means a lot of pressure will be put on Croatia’s goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa who struggled mightily against Brazil allowing two easily stoppable goals. He rebounded nicely however against Cameroon and should carry over that confidence against Mexico.

Mexico’s Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa was masterful in Mexico’s last game against Brazil. He will need to be as good if not better against Croatia if they want to advance to the Round of 16. Croatia is creative on offense and Mandzukic has the athletic ability, physicality and aerial power the likes of which Mexico has not seen before. He will wreak havoc in the box and if he scores, this tournament is over for Mexico.

Croatia has never won their final group game at the World Cup, while Mexico hasn’t won their final group game in almost 30 years.

My Prediction: The run of shut outs will end for Mexico as Croatia is too good not to score. Yet because Croatia will have to attack early to try and win the match, it will leave their back four exposed and Mexico has the speed and talent to get an early goal on the counter attack. I believe this game ends in a 1-1 Draw and Mexico advances to the Round of 16.

Betting odds courtesy of Bovada.lv:

Croatia:   Pick Em’ (Even)    //   +170 Moneyline             

Mexico:    Pick Em’ (-120)   //     +150  Moneyline            
Draw +250