Mexico and the Netherlands are both going into their 2014 World Cup round of 16 clash undefeated, but only one of them will emerge from Sunday's tie unblemished, with the other squad going home. Football can be cruel, but the unmatched drama of the knockout stages is just one of the reasons we all love the World Cup.
Mexico conceded just a single goal during the group stages—the Dutch average over three goals per match. Something has to give, and whichever teams gets to press its identity on this match will most likely advance to the quarter-finals.
Both teams are battle tested and could be looking at a relatively easy path to the semi-finals, but they'll have to survive this fixture first.
Date: Sunday, June 29
Time: 5 p.m. BSI/12 p.m. ET
Venue: Estadio Castelao, Fortaleza
Incredibly enough, both teams should be as close to 100 percent healthy as possible going into this match. Dutch striker Robin van Persie will return to the team's starting XI following his suspension, and his teammate Bruno Martins Indi is the only real question mark, per Bleacher Report's Elko Born:
It appears Martins Indi has recovered from his concussion. But it's likely he won't play against #mex. Dutch doctors are extremely careful.— Elko Born (@Elko_B) June 27, 2014
Martins Indi returned to training on Friday, and he's hopeful of returning to the starting XI soon, but Louis van Gaal will not want to take any chances.
The Dutch manager has used reaction-football and a conservative 5-2-3 formation to great effect until this point, but El Tri won't be giving up tons of space like Chile and Spain did. The Mexicans field their own version of the formation, a 3-5-2, and they've been using it for much longer than the Dutch have.
As a result, there is some speculation that Van Gaal could be looking at changing things up. His team hasn't looked great playing with possession, something he confirmed after the win over Chile, per BeNeFoot:
Van Gaal: "We're not perfect - in possession we still need to improve, but I do think we're very good without the ball."— BeNeFoot (@BeNeFoot) June 23, 2014
Possession is exactly what they'll see a lot of against Mexico, who are deadly on the counter and have also impressed on set pieces. ESPN FC's Tom Marshall thinks El Tri will add some bulk in front of their defence, to handle the Dutch's quicker, mobile players:
Reading between the lines, I think it'll be Carlos Salcido in for Jose Juan Vazquez in the holding role in Mexico's midfield.— Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) June 26, 2014
Arjen Robben has been lethal so far in the tournament, and his movement opens up a lot of space for teammates to exploit. Pushing him out wide or stopping him before he gets anywhere near the box is key in stopping the Netherlands, but it's easier said than done.
Carlos Salcido would replace Jose Juan Vasquez in the starting XI, who will be unavailable because of a suspension.
Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa has been one of the tournament's top stoppers so far, and arguably the team's most pivotal player. He was sensational against the hosts Brazil, but it's important to note the Brazilians gave him the chance to do what he does best—make incredible reaction saves.
Brazil's finishing was awful in that match, and it allowed Ochoa to put in a monster performance. The Netherlands' finishing has been superb this tournament, and if Robben or Van Persie should come one-on-one with the Mexican goalkeeper, they won't make the mistakes the Brazilians made.
It's vital Mexico keep their opponents further away from the goal than they did against Brazil. This Dutch team isn't built to break down an opponent from midfield—instead, they'll try to run into the spaces out wide and fire plenty of shots on goal.
Keeping Daley Blind or any other midfielder away from the edge of the box will go a long way in limiting the amount of looks the Dutch will get on goal, but that'll mean setting a higher line than the one El Tri used against Croatia and Brazil.
If Mexico don't leave their comfort zone, the Netherlands' clinical finishing will be their undoing. But if they can keep the ball in the centre of the pitch and hit the counter attack in a timely fashion, there's no reason they shouldn't feel confident about their chances.