Two goals in three second-half minutes sent Mexico on their way to claiming a fully deserved place in the Round of 16 for their sixth successive World Cup thanks to a 3-1 victory over Croatia in Recife.
Needing a point to progress, Mexico got a valuable buffer when captain Rafa Marquez powered home a header with 18 minutes remaining. With Croatia’s task of a win they needed to progress now made doubly difficult, Andres Guardado took advantage of Croatian desperation to finish off a swift Mexico counter and ensure his side were heading to the knockout phase as runners-up to Brazil in Group A. In the final 10 minutes, substitute Javier Hernandez headed in to make the victory an emphatic one, despite a late consolation for a Croatia team that finished with 10 men.
It was no more than Miguel Herrera’s team deserved. After a win against Cameroon that was far more convincing than the 1-0 score line suggested and impressing in a goalless draw with the hosts, Mexico were again excellent in this make-or-break clash. After all their travails experienced in simply making it to Brazil, it is some achievement already. And, despite a last-16 clash against a strong Netherlands side awaiting on Sunday, it would be unwise to write them off extending their stay further.
Herrera took over as coach just last November following Mexico’s hugely surprising struggles just to make it into a playoff for the World Cup. But the former Club America manager has implemented a hugely positive chance both in terms of the mentality of the players and their playing style. Both were firmly in evidence once more on Monday.
For the third game running Mexico’s lineup was unchanged and once more, despite knowing a draw would see them through, Mexico were superbly balanced in looking to be progressive while keeping protection for their defense. El Tri’s midfield has been a big part of that success, not least Hector Herrera. The all-rounder is having a superb tournament and he almost produced its standout moment with a ferocious left-footed drive in the 16th minute that had a full-stretch Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa beaten but came crashing back off the crossbar.
While Croatia, who had reinforced their midfield for this game, enjoyed plenty of possession in the opening half, it was Mexico who carried the greater goal threat. Croatia coach Niko Kovac looked to make his side more offensive after the interval with young creator Mateo Kovacic coming on. But the change only worked to Mexico’s advantage as they became increasingly strong.
Instead it was Mexico’s first substitute Hernandez who made a significant impact when coming on and was involved in an incident that should have led to a penalty. There was doubt about whether the Manchester Untied striker was shoved as he went for a header, but certainly there was no question that Croatia captain Darijo Srna blatantly and deliberately blocked Guardado’s subsequent effort with his arm.
Still, Mexico would not have to wait long for the precious opening goal. And it was 35-year-old Marquez, becoming the first man to captain his country in a fourth World Cup, who got the breakthrough. The defender rose highest above counterpart Vedran Corluka six yards out from a corner to send a header down and past Pletikosa.
Just three minutes later, the lead was doubled and Mexico was on its way to the knockout phase once more. On a quick counter-attack, Hernandez and Oribe Peralta linked up superbly before the latter’s low ball across the box was met by a firm, controlled finish from Guardado to fire the ball into the roof of the net.
Hernandez, not so long ago the golden boy of Mexican soccer, but who has been forced to accept a role off the bench following poor form for club and country, was then to get his moment. Marquez this time flicked on a corner and the poacher supreme was on hand to head in at the far post from close range.
A delightful flick from Ivan Rakitic set up Perisic to score late on but substitute Ante Rebic ensured Croatia exited in ignominy with a red card for a reckless challenge. Despite a positive first showing against Brazil and a 4-0 win over Cameroon, Croatia are now heading home. Mexico march on.