Going into the final Group A match of this World Cup, you could forgive Mexico for playing conservatively. While they could finish atop the group by “outscoring” Brazil, simply getting a draw would see Mexico extend their improbably run into the next round of the tournament. Instead, both teams went for the decisive first goal that led to an exciting match and ultimately a more active Mexico taking a lead they would not relinquish en route to a date with the Netherlands.
Ironically, the more appropriate tactic for both sides was the one not taken. If Croatia would have hunkered down and run out the clock, then tried to score later in the second half, they could have increased the pressure on an aggressive Mexico team or maybe hit them on the counter with Modric and Mandzukic. For El Tri, bunkering down and protecting the result would have been the most conservative idea but Herrera’s side cannot be described as conservative. Their 5-3-2 saw the fullbacks jumping forward into the attack, making it more of a 3-5-2, and leaving Rafa Marquez as the defensive distributor and central centerback.
As it would be for most of the game, Croatia had the majority of the possession but the shot distribution was fairly equal (10 shots for Croatia, 12 for Mexico). The pace was back-and-forth as each team took attacked the others net but there was no breakthrough in the first half. Hector Herrera almost put Mexico ahead in the 16th minute but was denied by the goal post.
A major talking point for this (and rightly so) will be the performance of Ravshan Irmatov, the Uzbek referee who was lauded for his performance in Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Ecuador. In this match, his performance was abysmal, and while Mexico was primarily the aggrieved party it was fortunate that Irmatov was lenient on a Marquez challenge in the 39th minute that could have seen red. Defensively he would not have been missed – his passing and covering was lacking – but that first Mexico goal would have missed its catalyst.
The action accelerated after an hour on the pitch. Key was Mexico’s substitution of Javier Hernandez, who came on for an active but ineffective Giovanni De Santos. The referee struck again when an Andres Guardado cross was batted down by Darijo Srna’s arms but went uncalled, as well as an appeal for a penalty minutes earlier. It was the set piece where Mexico is so dangerous that they struck first. Rafa Marquez was on the corner of the six-yard box when a Herrera corner came towards his head and it was redirected towards the goal. Like a damn that buckles under water pressure, the momentum firmly shifted towards El Tri. Guardado and Hernandez added goals to bury Croatia, although the late Ivan Perisic added a little drama.
In disciplinary news, Ante Rebic was sent off late with a straight red on a high studs tackle. Mexico, however, saw Jose Vazquez receive a yellow card in the second half and he will miss the Netherlands match. That was the only blemish on a night that saw Mexico, a team left for dead this winter in their qualification, celebrate a win that may not have been historic but was well deserved.