Group A was well poised heading into this crucial game. The setting was simple. Croatia needed a win, Mexico needed to avoid defeat to progress to the knockout rounds, with either Holland or Chile waiting for the winner. In the end, Mexico's resilience paid off, grinding Croatia down before hitting them with second half set-piece sucker punches to win 3-1 and set up a mouthwatering clash with Holland in the next round. Here's how Stats Zone saw it.
Niko Kovac made one change to his line-up from the 4-0 boffing of Cameroon, calling up Sime Vrsaljko for Sammir and using Barcelona-bound Ivan Rakitic in a more advanced midfield role. Mexico lined up in the familiar 5-3-2 formation that had seen them join Nigeria as the only two teams not to concede a goal in their opening two games.
In front of a fervent crowd made up predominantly of howling Mexicans, the game began with a nervous tension that stifled creativity. Croatia had more of the possession in the opening 15 minutes as both teams felt each other out.
Chances were at a premium, but in the 15th minute Hector Herrera rattled the crossbar with a thunderous left foot effort from distance. It was the first shot of any real significance, and very nearly the first goal.
Croatia did all the early running while Mexico sat deeper with a compact shape, looking to stay sturdy and hit their European opponents on the break.
In a tense atmosphere, Croatia’s midfield marauders Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric were struggling to exert as much influence on the game as they’re undoubtedly capable of…
…and in attack, Oribe Peralta and Giovanni dos Santos were seeing little of the ball, with only 1 pass received in the box between them in the first half, a good chance squandered by Peralta’s slip at the crucial moment.
With so much at stake for both nations, the prize lent the occasion a degree of caution from both. This manifested itself in a number of fouls in the first half, as the game's flow was stifled by scraps and scrapes.
At half-time it was goalless. Hector Herrera and Ivan Rakitic, both star players for their respective nations at this World Cup thus far, were the game’s top two for passes completed.
Mexico came out for the second half sitting even deeper, as the minutes on the clock began to tick by. Luka Modric began to have more of an influence, sitting slightly further back in midfield and dictating Croatia’s tempo.
In need of a goal, Croatia took off defender Vrjsalko and introduced highly promising young attacking midfielder Mateo Kovacic. A change was needed: star striker Mario Mandzukic had received very little service and went the first hour without registering a single shot on or off target.
Mexico responded by bringing on a lethal striker of their own: Javier Hernandez replaced Dos Santos, who had a quiet game.
Mexico's coach Miguel Herrera had a smart tactical plan for this one, the extra point over Croatia allowing him to base his strategy on sitting tight and looking for counter-attacks and set-pieces. His team increased the tempo after the hour mark, and in the 64th minute Mexico should have had a penalty. Darijo Srna handballed a Guardado shot in the box, but a blatant penalty was not given. Hernandez, the closest player to the incident, was furious.
Croatia were lucky to escape, though after their bad luck against Brazil they would argue they deserved a call in their favour (while Mexico's counter-argument would be that they themselves had two goals disallowed against Cameroon). Either way, no penalty. From the resulting corner, Vedran Corluka cleared the wickedly inswinging ball off the line. Croatia were on the back foot.
And lo and behold, minutes later Niko Kovac's side crumbled. In the 72nd minute Mexico took the lead. Rafa Marquez, a veteran of four World Cups and a legend in his homeland, powered in a header from a corner, left free by Corluka's slack marking. Stipe Pletikosa may have done better, but Mexico were a goal up and Croatia had it all to do.
Three minutes later it was 2-0. There's been a trend at this tournament of goals coming in quickfire bursts, and so it was here in Recife. A breakaway goal was thrashed home by Andres Guardado, assisted by Oribe Peralta. Mexico were on the brink of qualification and their fans, players and manager all went beserk.
A warning sign came three minutes later though, and Hector Moreno had to be alert to clear off the line after an exceptional run and shot by substitute Ante Rebic. But this brief Croatian fightback was smothered seconds later, when, from another corner, Marquez flicked on the delivery to Hernandez at the back post, leaving the Manchester United forward with a tap-in.
Croatia had fallen apart at this point, and though they grabbed a consolation goal through Ivan Perisic – who can hold his head high after an impressive tournament – the misery was compounded when lively sub Rebic was sent off for a dangerous, studs-up foul on fellow sub Carlos Pena. A poor tackle, perhaps borne out of frustration, and a deserved red.
Mexico coach Herrera's tactical approach had worked perfectly. His team had sat deep, waited for their opponent's nerves to kick in, and caught them with second-half sucker punches from set-plays. Mexico had mustered several shots on goal in the second half, and emerged deserved winners after a lacklustre second half from Croatia, who never got going.
Mexico qualify, with captain Marquez the hero, conjuring a goal and assist. They now head to Fortaleza to meet Holland in the next round.
Facts and figures
- Mexico have made it past the group stage in each of the last 7 World Cup finals in which they’ve participated.
- Mexico have now won 8 of their 31 World Cup games against European opposition (26%).
- Croatia have never won their final group game at a World Cup (D1 L3).
- Mexico have won their final group game at a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
- Croatia have conceded more than 1 goal against Mexico for the first time in their history.
- Each of Mexico’s last 8 goals at the World Cup have arrived in the second half.
- Indeed, 10 of the last 12 World Cup goals scored by Mexico have come after half-time.
- Rafael Márquez has netted a goal for Mexico in each of the last 3 World Cups.
- Mexico attempted 28 shots in their opening 3 games at the 2014 World Cup, fewer than any other Group A side.