Mexico keep Latin American fiesta in full flight as Croatia bow out
Skipper Rafael Marquez gets ball rolling with opening goal in Recife
In a bad-tempered Group A battle for second place Mexico won through to claim the dubious privilege of playing the Netherlands in Fortaleza on Sunday, showing by the end that they might be able to pose a few problems for Louis van Gaal and his players.
Miguel Herrera’s side went into this game having only scored one goal at the World Cup, and while crucially they had not conceded any, they played for an hour as if trying to get by on the minimum requirement before hitting a tiring Croatia with three goals in the last 20 minutes.
Croatia had defended well up to that point, without ever generating enough forward momentum to suggest they could get the goal and the win they needed. When Javier Hernandez scored from close range to make it 3-0 after his captain Rafael Márquez had nudged on a corner, Mexico and their army of supporters had everything they wanted and more.
Mexico were not uninspired after all, they were merely biding their time, waiting their moment. Now they have progressed with four goals for and just one against even the Dutch might be worried, for they will certainly have the crowd against them in the next game.
Croatia started out in more attacking mode, as they had to when a win was necessary to progress. The Mexico manager, Miguel Herrera, might have promised his side would go for the win rather than play for a draw, but that did not mean they were going to be gung-ho about it.
Ivan Rakitic created the first chance when he crossed for Ivan Perisic to shoot too high, before the tension of the game and the din being made by the overwhelming Mexican presence in the stadium began to transmit itself to the players. Darijo Srna was lucky to get away with a blatant barge on Andrés Guardado, before Rakitic picked up the first caution after 10 minutes for a foul on José Juan Vázquez.
It was not all one way, Márquez floored Luka Modric before football made a reappearance, Guillermo Ochoa leaving his line sharply to prevent Ivica Olic finding Mario Mandzukic in front of goal before Mexico registered their first goal attempt of the game and nearly scored, Héctor Herrera crashing a shot against the angle of post and bar from the edge of the area.
A commotion in the neutral seats indicated Brazil had taken the lead against Cameroon – unsurprisingly there was no visible crowd reaction when Joel Matip equalised – before Danijel Pranjic and Perisic both went close with rising shots that cleared the bar.
By the half hour neither goalkeeper had been called upon to make a fully-fledged save, which was more of a worry for Croatia than Mexico. Ochoa might have had the game of his life against Brazil, but Croatia needed to at least put him to the test. Srna had a chance to do that with a free kick from 25 yards just before the interval, Márquez having been booked illegally halting Perisic’s run from half way, but his shot flew too high without any help from the goalkeeper.
Croatia had to defend a succession of corners at the end of the first half and did so quite capably, winning one of their own at the end from which Vedran Corluka headed Paul Aguilar rather than the ball. It had been a feisty first half, typified by Srna and Guardado squaring up to each other in the closing stages.
While Croatia had managed to turn the volume in the stadium down by a couple of notches, if not quite silence the Mexican support, they could not be completely satisfied without Mandzukic making his presence up front and asking more questions of Ochoa.
Modric tried to play Mandzukic through at the start of the second half, just putting a fraction too much on his pass so that the goalkeeper was able to come out and claim. It is quite remarkable, given that he is only a bit part player these days for his country as well as his club, how many Mexican fans have Hernandez’s name on the back of their shirts. He is incredibly popular, and the roar when he took the field for Giovani dos Santos after an hour was easily the loudest of the night up to that point.
The next loudest was the appeal for a penalty when Guardado’s shot hit Srna on the arm and the referee refused to give a penalty. Herrera was incandescent on the touchline and replays suggested he had a point. It was perhaps not the most deliberate of handballs, Srna was simply trying to block the shot with his body, yet he his arms were outstretched and there was no doubt that was what deflected the ball.
Mexico were in the ascendancy by the mid-point of the second half, with Corluka clearing off his line following a corner and Stipe Pletikosa saving from Aguilar with his foot. The only surprise when the deadlock was broken was that the goal came from a set piece. Mexico had looked unthreatening from most of their corners, but 18 minutes from the end Marquez climbed above Corluka to nod firmly down past Pletikosa.
Three minutes later the Arena Pemambuco exploded into a riot of noise and colour as Guardado made the game safe, calmly slotting home from six yards after Herrera’s pass had missed out Hernandez. Perisic did manage to pull a goal back at the end to sully Mexico’s goals against column, if not spoil their perfect night.
MEXICO: 13 Guillermo Ochoa; 22 Paul Aguilar, 2 Francisco Rodriguez, 4 Rafael Marquez (yc), 15 Hector Moreno, 7 Miguel Layun; 6 Hector Herrera, 23 Jose Juan Vazquez (yc), 18 Andres Guardado (8 Marco Fabian, 84 mins); 10 Giovani dos Santos (14 Javier Hernandez, 62 mins), 19 Oribe Peralta (21 Carlos Pena, 79 mins). Yellow cards: Marquez, Vazquez.
CROATIA: 1 Stipe Pletikosa; 11 Darijo Srna, 5 Vedran Corluka, 6 Dejan Lovren, 2 Sime Vrsaljko (20 Mateo Kovacic, 58 mins); 7 Ivan Rakitic, 10 Luka Modric, 3 Danijel Pranjic (9 Nikica Jelavic, 74 mins); 4 Ivan Perisic, 17 Mario Mandzukic, 18 Ivica Olic (16 Ante Rebic, 69 mins). Yellow card: Rakitic. Red card: Rebic.