I made a mistake: I started writing this article before the match ended. I started to write about how Mexico should actually be happy with a draw. I started to write about how both sides should be satisfied with the outcome, rather than disheartened. Then, 72 minutes in, Rafa Marquez headed home an incredible header to take the lead. And then from that point on, there was only one story: Mexico, Mexico, Mexico.
El Tri confirmed everything we suspected to be true about them after their impressive draw with Brazil. We suspected that they had endured all of the turbulence of the past few months and had actually come out stronger for it. We suspected they would not be hampered by injuries, but would instead win in spite of them. We suspected that Guillermo Ochoa might be the best goalkeeper in the tournament. All of these suspicions are ever closer to being accepted as truths after today’s throttling of Croatia.
This outcome is, by all measures, a huge surprise. Of course, many people expected Mexico to build on their recent success with a victory, myself included. I know that I didn’t expect the match to look like this, though. Seventy minutes of tactically sound and evenly matched soccer followed by a total and complete capitulation by the Croats matched with an absolute onslaught of offense from Mexico. Many will engage in a debate about whether Croatia lost this game or Mexico won it, but there doesn’t need to be a choice in a match like this. Croatia fell apart, but it took only the lightest push from Mexico to cause them to implode.
Croatia could do little to prevent Marquez’s first goal, it was an almost perfectly taken corner followed by a header executed with equal perfection. Afterwards though, Croatia could simply not recover. Normally a side that plays smart, aggressive football that compensates for the fact that they are a better than average team but still far from being an elite side; they played a disjointed and ugly final twenty minutes. Their midfield was porous and sloppy with the ball, allowing Mexico to push their line back even further than it already had to be. The chaos in the midfield degenerated into despair as Mexico pushed forward, buoyed by their lead.
The first goal was undoubtedly a display of Mexican talent. Hector Herrera deserves as much credit for placing that corner kick in the exact spot it needed to be as does Marquez for driving it home. There was little Croatia could do to prevent that. It is the subsequent two goals that should leave Croatian supporters and players alike shaking their heads. I understand the offensive push in a dire situation that necessitates a goal, but Croatia seemed to lose all semblances of balance and tact as soon as they fell behind. Keep in mind they actually maintained the upper hand in possession throughout the game, although it rarely felt like that was the case.
While Pep Guardiola may argue otherwise, possession does not win games in the end. Mexico was too strong and too fast for what is still a very talented Croatian side. Croatia’s surfeit of possession time is likely more a result of their inability to create useful opportunities and their stalling when they did have possession in the hope that it would eventually drive Mexico’s sound defense apart. Mexico remained steadfast, however, and their persistence and patience ultimately proved far more vital than Croatia’s possession. Thanks to that, Mexico will be advancing to the next round to face the Netherlands, while Croatia will watch the rest of the tournament from home.