Croatia had to go all out to win, but in doing so handed the initiative to Mexico during their last Group A game, says Dominic Neo.
This is the hipsters’ World Cup. These alternative, flat white – not cafe latte, mind – drinking, indie-electronic-synth-pop loving footballing equivalents have been outstanding this year: Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Algeria, Ivory Coast, United States, Ghana, Belgium and even Iran have raised eye-brows not just because of the upsets they caused, but rather, the high levels of quality and desire that they have displayed. It is no wonder that Group A has not quite caught the imagination of the World as much as the other groups. Shame, because Croatia and Mexico – the World Cup’s veteran hipsters – served up a pulsating game of football.
The game kicked off at an absurdly high-tempo, with both sides going for the jugular. As the first knock-out game of sorts, with the winner securing qualification, it was no wonder that both sides showed plenty of fight. Mexico started the game unchanged, in their hip 5-3-2 wingback formation that has worked brilliantly for them in this tournament. Croatia, mindful of Mexico’s threat on the wings, made one change, with full-back Šime Vrsaljko coming in for Sammir. Vrsaljko slotted in at left-back, with Danijel Pranjić playing slightly in front of him as a defensive wide man.
Croatia’s set-up stifled Mexico. Nominally a 4-2-3-1 with Ivica Olić roaming behind Mario Mandžukić, the 1998 semi-finalists morphed into a flat five men midfield when defending against quick Mexico transitions in their own half. When Croatia attacked or lost the ball in the Mexican half, they transformed into a 4-4-2, with the wingers and strikers pressing the Mexican back three. Mexico struggled slightly, not being able to build passing moves from the back. More importantly, the wing-backs, Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún, were restrained when Mexico tried to move up the pitch. Mexico ended up being less expansive than usual, and the Croatian backline coped relatively comfortably with the through-balls and long punts played down the middle of the pitch, where dos Santos and Peralta found the going tough against physically imposing defenders.
Having said that, the game did not descend into a tetchy, stop-start affair. Both sides were technically competent and composed, playing themselves out of trouble time after time, in spite of the intense pressing. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić, in particular, passed and moved excellently. The Mexican trio of Hector Herrera, Guardado and José Juan Vázquez kept it tidy and feisty, as usual. It might have been a deadlock, but it was an immensely absorbing techical and tactical contest.
Chances were naturally few and far in between. Both sides were restricted to long-shots and half chances. Hector Herrera came closest with a 25-yard sorcher that clipped the cross-bar, whilst Olic headed a smart effort that drew a save from Guillermo Ochoa at the other end. It was not quite for the lack of attacking guile and gumption showed by both sides that the first-half ended goaless. Rather, Croatia and Mexico, buoyed by their clean-sheets from their second-round matches, defended stoutly and pressed effectively.
It was no wonder that the first-half statistics told a story of an even-contest:
With the first-half played at such an insatiable pace, it was no surprise that the tempo ebbed slightly. Nerves, perhaps, played a part – in such a tight game, the first goal invariably swings the momentum to the scorers. Passes started to go astray as the crowd and teams tensed up. Mexico, needing only a draw to progress, were content with the contest dwindling into a scrap. Croatia, though, needed a win. Kovac knew that and made the first change of the game – the young playmaker, Mateo Kovačić, coming on for Vrsaljko – in an attempt to affect the game. Change the game, he did, as the substituition handed the impetus to Mexico.
Croatia lost their shape which had contained Mexico so well. They changed to a 4-4-1-1, with Pranjić dropping into left-back, and Olić into left midfield. They became flat and lost the numerical advantage when pressing the Mexican defence high up the pitch, with the young Kovačić not showing the same discipline and adaptability as Olić did when he was the nominal left inside-forward before the substituition. More importantly, Pranjić was not as effective as Vrsaljko defensively: the substituted full-back made 10/10 successful clearances and won 2/2 aerial duels in 58 minutes whilst Pranjić made only one successful clearance and tackle in 74 minutes.
Mexico started to build from the back and dominated possession. Croatia were pegged back. And while Mexico’s opener was down to the Croatian goalkeeper’s suspect positioning and handling rather than the ferocity of Marquez’s header, it was still a goal richly deserved, given the run of play.
Croatia now needed two goals, and the circumstance forced Kovac’s hand: he brought on Hull City striker Nikica Jelavić for Pranjić. The Mexicans were given more space to exploit as Croatia commited men forward. And just a minute later, a break down that vacated right flank resulted in Guardado grabbing the second goal, as he sidefooted the ball into the roof of the net from eight yards out following a cut-back from Oribe Peralta. Hernandez then grabbed a textbook Hernandez goal, slotting home from two yards out, to seal the win, seven minutes later. Croatia were defeated and deflated.
There was still time, though, for Croatia to dampen Mexico’s party with a moment of class and stupidity. Ivan Perišić’s delightful 1-2 with Ivan Rakitić’s released the winger and he made no mistake, drilling the ball into the net for a consolation goal. Not content with going gentle into that good night, Ante Rebić soured the occasion with a silly, studs-up challenge, and he deservedly saw red.
But Mexico will not concern themselves with the last ten minutes of the game, despite Ochoa, the one-time wall and Mexican Jesus, and his excellent defence, conceding their first-goal in the tournament. They have been wonderful to watch, coupling technical and tactical competency with an irresistible tenacity. They were slightly unfortunate not to finish top of the group, but they will fancy their chances against a Netherlands side that are prone to defensive lapses.
It will still be tough for Mexico, mind. Yet, all teams can and will be defeated, as these less-favored teams have demonstrated. Regardless of whether you prefer mainstream, traditional teams or these newfangled, alternative sides, the quality of football has not let anyone down so far. Long may the new and the old hipster gods bless this World Cup, even as the dashing Niko Kovac, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt senior, leaves the World Cup.