Mexico need a result against Croatia to advance
Croatia's 4-0 win over Cameroon serves as an important reminder to Mexico that despite a good start in beating Cameroon and drawing Brazil, there is still more work to be done.
Namely, El Tri must now finish what it has started -- the goal of advancing out of group play. There are various scenarios which make this possible, and most are in Mexico's favor. That's because El Tri claim four points from their two matches.
Croatia, which didn't manage a single goal of their own against Brazil, did get an own-goal on their behalf in the 3-1 contest. With their win over now-eliminated Cameroon, Croatia have three points.
At this point, it must be assumed that Brazil will beat Cameroon. The host team will be under pressure after the draw versus Mexico, so it is unlikely that they will cruise or rest their top players, as they might have had advancement been assured. Brazil currently has four points, so a victory would leave them with seven and they would likely advance as leader of the group.
This leaves Croatia in a must-win scenario. A draw would still advance Mexico in second place in the group, assuming a Brazil win. A triumph over Croatia would mean a tie with Brazil on points and goal differential to decide who would advance as leader.
Normally, few would pick Croatia as the tougher team to draw or defeat than Brazil, but Mexico has lost two out of three games to Croatia all time. The last time the two teams met in the World Cup, however, in 2002, Mexico did manage a win in group play, thanks to a Cuauhtemoc Blanco penalty kick.
Mexico's current captain, Rafael Marquez, should remember, since he was on the field for that game, serving in the same capacity as he is now. Stipe Pletikosa, the Croatian goalkeeper, was in the 2002 match as well. Ivica Olic was on the bench for that game.
Olic scored the opening goal for Croatia against Cameroon, when the African squad was at full strength, so there is no doubt that he is still an effective player.
Of course Mexico can defeat Croatia. But the danger is great against the Croats because Mexico's squad has shown that it can lose concentration at crucial moments and perform poorly.
In a friendly earlier this year, the USA punished El Tri's lack of focus, jumping out to a 2-0 lead. Mexico clawed back to draw 2-2. In a more recent friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina, El Tri seemed inordinately thrown by a late (though allowed) change to their opponent's starting lineup, falling 1-0. Finally, a draw versus Portugal in the team's last friendly before the World Cup was dashed in the last minute by a Bruno Alves header.
It's worth a mention that the goalkeeper who suffered that goal by Alves was Guillermo Ochoa. While rightly hailed as a savior for Mexico against Brazil, it's important to note that he is human and can't be left out to dry too often by his defenders.
It's maddening to El Tri fans that their squad can perform with such concentration against the likes of Brazil, but falter against other teams that on paper seem much less intimidating.
Yet that doesn't change the truth of the team's history, which is why so many supporters will be on edge and anxious as Mexico and Croatia face off. Even if a draw seems like a safe option, nothing is certain until the final whistle. The Vatreni need a win, and a desperate team can pull off some dramatic plays. Mexico must remain focused and make sure that their own bright start doesn't come to an ugly end.
Andrea Canales covers both Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter @soccercanales.