Mexico booked their place in the knockout stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ with a 3-1 win over Croatia in their third and final Group A game in Recife. Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez provided the goals and El Tri will now meet the Netherlands in the Round of 16, while the Croats head for home.
The game at the Arena Pernambuco had a physical edge from the opening whistle, almost predictable considering the value of the contest for both teams. Ivan Rakitic, Croatia’s stay-at-home central midfielder of the day, was yellow-carded inside the first five minutes for a hard foul on Jose Vazquez.
Soon after, both goals were under threat. In the 14th minute, Ivica Olic headed a dangerous ball across the face of the Mexican goal. Guillermo Ochoa – El Tri hero from the goalless draw with Brazil – dove out of the frame to clear with a flying punch. And just a minute later up the other end, Hector Herrera saw his left-footed piledriver from 30 yards out hit the corner of post and crossbar.
The Mexicans were in the ascendency and, seconds after going within inches of scoring, Oribe Peralta chased in a through ball from Giovani dos Santos. But despite the Santos Laguna striker being at full stretch, he was just unable to make clean contact with the ball and a good chance went begging.
The Croatians were content to sit back and try to break on the counter-attack as the opening period wore on. One such foray, after the half-hour mark, led to a second yellow card of the game. This time the caution went to Marquez, the Mexican captain hauling down Mario Mandzukic, who was racing toward goal. It was a dangerous game for the Mexicans to play as Croatia packed the superior aerial threat from set-pieces.
A draw would do Croatia no good and it became clear shortly after the interval that they would need to be a little more cavalier in their approach. Mexico coach Miguel Herrera, for his part, shook things up in attack too, by bringing on Hernandez for creator Dos Santos.
The CONCACAF side began to turn the screw, but their goal came not from a striker, but a tried and true defender. Captain Marquez, so often Mexico’s hero, stepped up in the 72nd minute to nod home a Herrera corner-kick.
At that moment, the game might as well have been at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, such was the noise produced by the fans in green. It didn’t diminish three minutes later, either, when Guardado added a second, or when Hernandez headed his first goal in an age for Mexico to make it three.
Ivan Perisic pulled one back for the Europeans in the closing moments and Ante Rebic saw red, but it made no difference. As second place finisher in Group A, Mexico - who've put their qualifying struggles well behind them - now meet the high-flying Netherlands in the Round of 16 on 29 June in Fortaleza. Croatia, despite producing some fine football here in Brazil, head for home after just three matches.