With host-nation Brazil heavily favored to win Group A, second place is still very much up for grabs between Mexico and Croatia as they battle Monday at Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil.
The Vatreni currently have a one-goal advantage over Mexico, but require a win to advance. A second straight scoreless draw for El Tri after they stymied Brazil’s attack likely won’t be their favored outcome, as Mexico wants to show the world that they put their dreadful World Cup qualifying effort behind them.
While no game truly comes down to a single matchup, how Mexico’s stellar goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa contains Croatia’s tandem of midfielder Ivica Olic and striker Mario Mandzukic should be the key.
Croatia is fresh off its 4-0 thrashing of Cameroon that sent the African nation packing after only two games, and Mandzukic entered the Golden Ball conversation with his two goals and overall effectiveness throughout the match.
The fact that Cameroon played with a man down for the majority of the match could take some of the luster off Croatia, who won their first World Cup match since 2002 in South Korea, but they are still a country squarely focused on the task at hand rather than the talk of naysayers.
“The match against Mexico will be like a final,” Croatia manager Niko Kovac said according to Daily Mail. “We have to get some rest, because a serious opponent awaits.
“Mexico are strong, but so are we. The Mexico players are very patriotic, just like us, and they have a great team spirit. They play some aggressive football with a lot of pressing. They are strong going forward, but also have some weaknesses in defense, like Brazil showed us.”
A win assures Croatia’s pass to the knockout stage, where they haven’t been since their third place finish in 1998.
Ochoa and Mexico are seeking a sixth consecutive appearance in the Round of 16, but in order to advance they’ll need far more offense than the singular goal they’ve scored in Brazil.
El Tri squeezed off 13 total shots against Brazil, but only three were on target, and Ochoa took it upon himself to carry Mexico with some acrobatic saves. Forward Oribe Peralta’s goal in the 61st minute against Cameroon has been Mexico’s only score this year, compared to the last five Cups when they netted a minimum of four goals.
Manager Miguel Herrera will expect more from forward Javier Hernandez, whose 35 international goals is more than double the next closest Mexico player, and especially more from midfielder Andres Guardado. With 107 caps, Guardado is by far Mexico’s most experienced midfielder and how he conducts the attack could make all the difference.
Start Time: Monday, 4 p.m.
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at Watch ESPN here
Betting Odds: (bovada.lv)
Over/Under: 2.5 goals
Prediction: Mexico 1-1 Croatia