Can Mexico upset the Netherlands?
Perhaps the trick for Mexico, now safely into the next round of the World Cup, is to look at the orange uniforms of the Netherlands and pretend they are the canary-yellow ones of Brazil.
It has to feel a bit like a curse within a blessing, to progress with the same point total as Brazil but get second place on goal differential, and then to meet in the round of 16 what is arguably the most on-form team in the tournament.
Netherlands has won each of its three games in this World Cup. It demolished defending champion Spain 5-1, fought back against feisty Australia 3-2, and dispatched Chile (with their passionate fans) 2-0.
The duo of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have been especially effective, but the entire squad is as good an example of "total football" as one can find today. Under the guidance of exuberant yet astute coach Louis van Gaal, the Dutch team exploits space ruthlessly on counter opportunities. On his own, Van Persie made the nickname "The Flying Dutchmen" literally true for an amazing header goal. The orange crush that flattened Spain is now coming for Mexico.
El Tri shouldn't despair, though, even if there's an uncomfortable familiarity to getting out of group play and encountering a tough team in the knockout stage.
The Dutch are not invincible. The difficulty they had dispatching Australia makes that plain. There are also clear reasons why the squad has never won a World Cup despite having many incredibly gifted, even legendary, players.
To a certain extent, Mexico can relate. The team's talent is evident and has been on display as recently as 2012, when El Tri claimed the Olympic gold medal over Brazil. Yet throughout 2013, the players were unfocused and perhaps too overconfident against CONCACAF opposition, putting World Cup qualification in serious jeopardy. When Mexico's coaches could not halt the slide of poor results, they were given more time by an indulgent federation that didn't believe the 2014 tournament was in serious jeopardy until it was almost too late. Fans were almost in despair, though they have rallied around the team of late.
For its part, the Netherlands squad has a history of tension and infighting. Six years ago, reports centered around Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder feuding, while Robben and Bruno Martins Indi had a recent spat during a team practice. Van Gaal has the sort of strong personality that can convince players to lay personal animosities aside to work for the greater good of the team, but a frustrating game can release all kinds of negative emotions among teammates.
Unfortunately for Mexico, Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez will miss the match against the Dutch due to yellow-card accumulation. Vazquez is one of El Tri's strongest players in terms of blunting the attacks of opponents, and his persistent play and constant movement was key for Mexico in the group stage.
It may not matter. Captain Rafael Marquez led his team with the crucial goal against Croatia when the squad needed a confidence boost. The final 15 minutes of the match against Croatia seemed to show an El Tri team finally set free from poor referee calls and their own insecurities due to past struggles. Andres Guardado blasted a one-time shot that was unstoppable. Javier Hernandez poached a header goal with the ease of someone who does that every day in practice. Manager Miguel Herrera made himself an Internet meme again with his sideline celebrations.
Herrera set the ambitions of the squad high even before the tournament began, when some supporters were secretly hoping that Mexico would simply not embarrass themselves. Herrera established a fifth game for the squad as a public target, though it is clear that his own ambition, and the aim that he transmits to the players, is higher than that.
Yes, Mexico has fallen in the fourth match many times before, so consistently that it's a bit eerie. There has even been talk of a curse, but the bottom line is that soccer is very much a mental game. Even superstitions can have some effect. Herrera may be the catalyst to help Mexico break the fourth-game hex, even against the Clockwork Orange.
Andrea Canales covers both Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter @soccercanales.