Five keys for Mexico to beat Croatia
GUADALAJARA -- There are few second chances in the World Cup. Just ask Spain or England, who are both exiting the competition with their tails between their legs fewer than 10 days after Brazil 2014 got underway.
At this stage, it's all about getting those points, making the Round of 16 and kicking on.
No matter how much backslapping and good will exist in Mexico after El Tri's performances so far this World Cup, it will all be worthless unless the team obtains at least one more point against Croatia on Monday in Recife. Even worse, should they fail Monday, it would make this year statistically Mexico's poorest World Cup performance since 1978 -- the most recent time they didn't get out of the group stage.
"What we are concerned about is that the team keeps playing the same way," Mexico manager Miguel Herrera said in Friday's press conference in Santos. "We can lose everything we've done in this World Cup if we don't win on Monday."
One thing Monday's game is unlikely to be is easy, given that it is against a side above Mexico in FIFA rankings that has players who feature week in and week out for some of Europe's elite clubs.
Here are Mexico's five keys to getting the victory:
1. Winning the midfield battle
It always sounds more than a little naïve to make such an obvious statement, but with Croatia boasting the quality of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Sammir and Mateo Kovacic, Mexico has to keep up in the center of the field.
On the positive side, the trio of Jose Juan Vazquez, Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera has been highly impressive so far.
Controlling the deadly Mario Mandzukic, who looked very good against Cameroon, is one of the points farther down this list. However, ensuring Croatia can't provide chances to their striker depends partly on stopping their creative midfielders from getting time and space on the ball to spread it directly to the Bayern Munich player or down the wings to cross in for him.
2. Maintaining the intensity
Unlike with CONCACAF teams in the qualifiers, you get the feeling that playing against Mexico at this World Cup has been far from an enjoyable experience for both Cameroon and Brazil players.
Mexico have been a gritty team who have given the opposition so far no chance to settle and little time on the ball, and the battle to defend starts with Oribe Peralta and Giovani Dos Santos up front.
The pressing has stopped the opponent playing to a degree and has been key in Mexico's maintaining clean sheets in both games so far.
Against Brazil, there was doubt the team could keep it up for 90 minutes, having had a day's less rest than the hosts, but Herrera's substitutions were timely and correct.
This time around, Mexico has a day longer than their opponents to prepare. That bodes well for El Tri's swift, pressing game.
3. Scoring first
Miguel Layun has already talked about Mexico needing to score first to be able to control the game against Croatia, and it would be a massive boost against the European side.
Herrera has said his team will go out to attack and he believes Croatia will leave space at the back.
"We have to attack them," the manager said. "Brazil attacked them. Marking and defensive work is difficult for them."
With Croatia needing a win and Mexico intent on attacking, it promises to be an intense match.
4. Stopping Mandzukic
With 18 goals in 21 starts in the Bundesliga and two goals in his first two World Cup appearances, Mandzukic is one of the world's best forwards. He combines a physical presence with a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net.
Mexico's center-back trio of Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez, Rafa Marquez and Hector Moreno has held up well so far, and El Tri have yet to concede a goal in the tournament. Stopping Mandzukic is their biggest test to date.
5. Miguel Herrera
What can you say about Mexico's coach so far this World Cup? He's been a revelation. His honesty with the press and explanations of his decisions appear to have gone down well with players. Everything coming out of the camp suggests it is a happy place to be. That's been seen on the pitch as well, as he's turned El Tri from a team struggling to qualify to one fans can believe in.
But Monday's match is the manager's biggest test yet. Qualification is on the line, there are likely to be swings throughout the 90 minutes, and how he plays it from the touchline is vital.
The likelihood is Mexico will press forward, but if the game is 2-2 after 85 minutes, will even Herrera opt for a defensive substitution?
Tom Marshall has been based in Guadalajara since 2008 and has written about Mexican football ever since. Find him on Twitter @MexicoWorldCup.