Magic Mexico through thanks to Miguel Herrera’s masterplan
There is nothing more satisfying in football management when everything you have planned tactically comes off, and all your key players score to boot. Judging by his leaping touchline antics, nobody will feel the sense of elation more than Mexico manager Miguel Herrera right now.
His Aztecs put together a consummate performance to run out 3-1 winners over 10-man Croatia to book their place in the knockout phase. Mexico are down to 33/1 (from 100/1) with Coral to go all the way and win their first World Cup.
Against relative novice Niko Kovac, Herrera sent his charges out with instructions to absorb pressure. Like their animated coach on the touchline, the Aztecs were then to spring on the counter. A flat back five frustrated the Blazers; after all, a draw was sufficient for Mexico to make it through to the pool on goal difference.
The onus was on Croatia and Kovac to come out and win the game. It got tetchy at times, comings together at set pieces were a feature of this winner-takes-all contest throughout. It was from such a situation that the Aztecs scored with 20 minutes left.
Rafael Marquez is surely in the twilight of his international career, but became the first defender in Mexican football history to get goals in three successive World Cups. Imperious at the back when thrown up against Mario Mandzukic, and later Nikica Jelavic, the 35-year-old met Hector Herrera’s corner with a downward header that deceived Blazers keeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Andres Guardado, another hard-working Aztecs centurion, then swiftly doubled their lead three minutes later. The left-sided player, operating narrow in what was almost a midfield diamond until Giovani dos Santos came off, swept home in acres of space from Oribe Peralta’s square ball.
Mexico made it three in 10 minutes, as Croatian heads dropped, through substitute Javier Hernandez. The Manchester United striker, affectionatley nicknamed Chicharito, has had a difficult campaign for both club and country, but his international goal drought is now over.
You wouldn’t have known it was Hernandez’s first in a dozen caps, as all his predatory instincts were on show as he ghosted in at the back post to nod in a right wing corner flicked on from Marquez. Things were hugely open in the second half, especially with the Aztecs playing 3-5-2 against a Blazers front pairing.
That is why Hector Moreno had to make a key goal-line clearance from sub Ante Rebic at 2-0. Kovac’s Croatia spoiled a Mexican clean sheet, however, when Ivan Perisic latched onto an Ivan Rakitic reverse pass and slotted under goalie Guillermo Ochoa; their only defensive blemish of the group stage.
Blazers misery was compounded before the final whistle too, as Rebic lunged in on fellow substitute Carlos Pena. The studs were showing, it was high on the shin and the referee had no option but to brandish a straight red.
Group opponents have struggled both to break Herrera’s Aztecs down and cope with their wing backs. Their next opponents at the Brazil finals will be the Netherlands, however, who are employing similar tactics. An underdog status will suit Mexico, 5/2 to knock out Louis van Gaal’s much-fancied Dutch outfit, just fine, though.