Mexico's Group A decider against Croatia should be one of the most exciting games of the 2014 FIFA World Cup's first phase. It features two teams both well-versed in fluid, attacking football.
For Croatia, it's do-or-die in terms of qualification. Niko Kovac's squad boosted their hopes with a hugely impressive 4-0 win over Cameroon.
That match showcased Croatia's vibrant attacking line. Roving wide forwards Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic were in particularly fine form.
But Mexico won't be intimidated, especially since they possess ample forward-thinking talent of their own. Most of that talent comes from mercurial attacker Giovani dos Santos, a player capable of deciding any game on his day.
The team also showed they can match their flair with equal solidity and resolve by holding host nation Brazil to a goalless stalemate. That gave Mexico four points and means a draw will be good enough to see Miguel Herrera's squad into the knockout phase.
Here's the latest form guide and stream information ahead of the game:
|Monday, June 23||9 p.m. (BST) / 4 p.m. (ET)||ITV / ESPN||ITV Player / ESPNPlayer|
Source: ESPN.com and FIFA.com
|Home vs. Portugal||0-1||Lost|
|Home vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina||0-1||Lost|
|Home vs. Ecuador||3-1||Win|
The recent form is not that impressive from Herrera's team, but it does show Mexico's ability to raise themselves for tournament football. What the respective scorelines reveal is that finding the net has been a problem.
That's partly due to dos Santos not being a true striker combined with Herrera's reluctance to regularly start Manchester United poacher Javier Hernandez. But Herrera may be keen to loosen the shackles on his attack against a suspect Croatia defence.
|Home vs. Australia||1-0||Won|
|Home vs. Mali||2-1||Won|
Source: Sky Sports
Croatia's recent form has been more impressive, although they haven't been called into action as often as Mexico or faced the same quality of opposition. However, Kovac's team has had no trouble creating chances and scoring goals.
Croatia boast technical assurance at the heart of midfield as well as speed and intelligence from wide areas. Towering and scrappy centre-forward Mario Mandzukic is the crucial-link player. The 28-year-old acts as the focal point the others play around.
Mexico's defence has been stout but could struggle to cope with Croatia's quick and clever passing.
This is not an easy game to predict. Croatia were brilliant against Cameroon. Their bright and vibrant football was pleasing on the eye for the viewer but devastating for the opposition.
Croatia’s opening goal against Brazil was created on the wing and it was out wide that Niko Kovac’s side looked to test Cameroon.
Srna and Perisic continued to combine well down Croatia’s right, with Tottenham left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto struggling to deal with the dual threat they posed.
Breaking quickly down the channels, combined with smart combination play in the box, is the key to how Croatia attack. But can they be counted on to show the same forward-thinking urgency with so much at stake?
Granted, with so many attack-minded players at his disposal, it will be difficult for Kovac to encourage a cautious approach. Yet he knows anything less than a win will see Croatia suffer an early exit. They might not want to risk being gung-ho from the off.
Of course, inviting Mexico on is a dangerous proposition. Dos Santos combines well with powerful striker Oribe Peralta in the team's 5-3-2 formation.
Meanwhile, midfield pass master Jose Vazquez is the hub of the Aztecs' possession play. He may be able to find room against the soft underbelly of Croatia's midfield.
Kovac has trusted a central pairing comprised of schemers Lukas Modric and Ivan Rakitic. The alternative is another languid creator, Inter Milan's Mateo Kovacic.
If Vazquez bosses proceedings in the middle, dos Santos and Peralta will get the chances to punish Croatia's back four. But if Croatia's playmakers own the ball, they can find enough openings for Mandzukic to cause problems.
Of course, he'll first have to get past goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. The agile stopper was magnificent against Brazil. Mikey Stafford of The Independent detailed Ochoa's brilliant effort to frustrate the host nation:
With his hair freshly dyed for the occasion in Fortaleza, Neymar seemed hell bent on smoothing the Selecao’s route to the second round, but too few of the support task were in the same mood, while Mexico’s custodian was determined to frustrate any that tried.
The last of Ochoa’s saves was from Brazil captain Thiago Silva, who met Neymar’s free-kick perfectly but, from six yards out, needed to put it either side of the keeper, who plays in France with Ajaccio.
However, Ochoa's South American opponents never really created particularly favourable scoring chances. But Croatia's intricate combination play can fashion one-on-ones that will test the in-form 'keeper.
Croatia's creative flair can secure a narrow win probably by no more than a single goal. Mandzukic boasts the kind of intimidating physicality and aerial power Mexico have yet to face at this tournament.
He will cause damage as both a creative force and a consistent menace in the box.
Final Score: Mexico 1-2 Croatia
Ultimately, Mexico's dimmed firepower will cost them at this World Cup. They won't do enough to trouble Croatia at the back.
Eventually, Kovac's men will put together the moves they need to score the winning goals.