Mexico must make good use of Croatia friendly despite Croatia's absences
MEXICO CITY -- Three of Mexico's last four opponents rank among the world's 20 best teams, according to FIFA. Juan Carlos Osorio's team is unbeaten against all of them.
To say Croatia, ranked 15th in the world, represents an equally difficult challenge is a stretch given their current roster composition. The Europeans will be without Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan) after they all sustained bruises during their previous match against Peru.
Real Madrid's Luka Modric will not play either, due to the Spanish giants recalling the gifted midfielder by special request of the manager, Zinedine Zidane. The multiple absences mean Mexico will be facing a watered-down version of the team they last faced in a May 2017 friendly match in Los Angeles, California.
"I think it's regrettable because the idea of having these games is facing each team's best starting eleven," said Mexico's manager, Juan Carlos Osorio. "I don't have the arguments to give an opinion about it, but I do feel in the future, the organizers should take this into account and have a clause in the contracts assuring each team's best squad."
The silver lining for Osorio is the chance to rotate his squad and play those who did not receive minutes against Iceland, a 3-0 win despite some shaky defending and a tough first half in Santa Clara last Friday. "We suffered a lot on the counter, and that's what these games are for to learn," said midfielder Andres Guardado. "We're conscious we need to get better in several aspects," the Real Betis midfielder added.
As Mexico moves on to their second match of the international break, in Dallas, Texas, top players like Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano and Guillermo Ochoa are likely to feature after not starting on Friday. Ochoa, the Standard Liege goalkeeper, will be expected to maintain the national team's streak of 290 minutes without conceding a goal.
On the Croatian side, with the challenge increased amidst the lack of star power, captain Vedran Corluka is looking to inspire his teammates with the not-too-distant memory of crashing out of the last World Cup at the hands of Mexico.
"We have a history, it's true. We beat them in the friendlies but they beat us in the important matches," Corluka said. "I hope this changes -- not for Tuesday's game but in the future. I think it's a good exam for us," he continued.
The praise went beyond Corluka, as Ochoa's teammate in Belgium, Duje Cop, was equally complimentary. "I think [Mexico] has Argentina's style, they just don't have a player like Messi. But it's a great test for us, a great game."
Mexico has twice beaten Croatia at the World Cup. In 2002, a Cuauhtemoc Blanco penalty was the difference in a 1-0 game in Niigata, Japan. Twelve years later, in a pivotal match that defined who went on to the Round of 16, Mexico trounced the Balkan nation by a final score of 3-1.
Last year, in a friendly at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Cop and Fran Tudor scored two goals in two minutes in the first half to give Croatia a 2-0 lead. Minutes from the end, Javier Hernandez brought Mexico within one but it was not enough. It would be El Tri's last loss until the 2017 Confederations Cup, when they dropped a 4-1 match to Germany, their group rivals at this year's World Cup.
Dallas' massive AT&T Stadium will once again serve as the venue for a Mexico friendly -- the team has been supremely successful at the site, boasting a record of five wins, one draw and no losses. Their last game there was played in September of 2015, when El Tri drew 2-2 with Argentina.
Regardless of who Croatia will field on Tuesday, the game represents another opportunity for Osorio to answer lingering questions ahead of Russia. Doubts continue to linger in central midfield, practically the entire defensive line, and who the featured striker will be next June.
Thus, the absences that so bother Mexico's backroom staff will need to take a backseat to analyzing the roster against another opponent. With time running out before the World Cup, figuring out who plays where is decidedly more important than any other issue as the team attempts to go deep into the tournament and to the fabled quinto partido for the first time since 1986.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.