Croatia may have too much up front for Mexico
Mario Mandzukic has chosen an opportune time to hit a rich vein of scoring form
Mario Mandzukic has been advertising a chocolate bar back home, and there is a certain melt-in-your-mouth goodness to Croatia’s attacking play in Brazil, with the Bayern Munich striker adding centre-forward refinement on his return against Cameroon to the velvety texture of the side’s build-up play.
In need of a win against Mexico in Recife today to progress to the last 16 for the first time since 1998, the Croatians have chosen an opportune time to find their scoring touch, especially facing one of only two sides yet to concede a goal in the tournament.
Mexico’s captain Rafael Marquez got his analysis just about right when he described today’s opponents: “They have got very quick wingers who can get to the byline and put the ball in the box. They have also got a lethal striker and some of the best central midfielders around.”
Put so plainly and truthfully, it makes you wonder why Croatia have been so inconsistent in the last couple of years – they lost twice to Scotland in qualifying, for instance. It also makes you think that the chance circumstance of their very good players all hitting form right now makes them a very dangerous indeed.
Croatia’s tactics could not be more straightforward: hard-working and direct wingers Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic supplying Mandzukic, while profiting from the control of their technical La Liga duo Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the centre. Niko Kovac’s defence was not breached against Cameroon and, you could argue, shipped fewer chances against Brazil than did Mexico, who were indebted to a brilliantly charismatic performance by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, and four fine saves, or “four miracles”, as Brazil’s evangelical striker Fred called them.
For all that, the Mexican performance was highly impressive and assured, but you wonder how much that had to do with how strangely empowered they feel when playing Brazil. They only need a draw today, and they have progressed from their group in their last five World Cup appearances, but you wonder where their goals may come from. Javier Hernandez was threatening when introduced against Brazil but Mexico coach Miguel Herrera seems unwilling to start him.
“We are not going to think about a tie, our intention is to win,” Herrera said of today’s game. “Of course if we end up with a draw, we progress anyway and so we would be happy, but if you go into a game thinking about a tie you are most likely going to lose.”
In this winner-take-all encounter we expect another open game – but who will that suit? So far the thrill of the World Cup has lain in the rewards given to those who attack best. Iran’s cruel punishment against Argentina was the most extreme instance, but the tournament has illuminated the sometimes forgotten truth that whichever teams scores more goals will win a game. It is hard not to see Croatia being that team here.