HOUSTON - Croatia is coming into Monday's game against Mexico after a loss to host Brazil in the first game of the tournament. Although the game's final score was 3-1, it was a much closer affair than the score line suggests.
If their goalkeeper had been faster to react on the two goals after the penalty kick, Croatia could have easily walked away with a point in that game. In their second game they dismantled Cameroon by four goals, so coming into this game against Mexico I feel they are an extremely confident side.
All Mexico needs is a tie to advance to the next round. They too will be coming into this game on a high after getting two good results against Brazil and Cameroon. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was a big reason for the tie against Brazil. In that game he was able to make several spectacular saves, making his performance the best I've seen so far by a goalkeeper in this tournament.
Defensively, Mexico has been extremely stingy. As a team, they close down spaces well in the midfield and make it hard for other teams to play through them. They immediately put pressure on the ball with three or four players when they turn it over. This is important in protecting a slow back line and has so far been very effective.
Despite Mexico's defensive strength I feel Croatia will have an advantage on set pieces. Just as we saw when Mexico played Brazil, Ochoa had to make two big saves during set piece situations. He also had to make two big saves off of crosses into the box.
To avoid this from happening again, Mexico will have to limit service from wide areas and will have to be more physical on players in the box when the ball does go wide. If they can do this they will limit Mario Mandzukic's opportunities and give themselves a great chance to advance.
A positive in Mexico's attack is Giovani Dos Santos. Most of Mexico's great opportunities have centered on his creativity in finding space in the attacking third of the field. This, in addition to his ability to break down defenses by running at players, has allowed him to be a very effective weapon on offense. The more he touches the ball, the more dangerous in attack and the more opportunities Mexico will have to score.
In order to get the result Mexico needs, Ochoa will again have to be spectacular to keep a clean sheet and neutralize a strong Croatian attack. If Mexico continues to play its aggressive team defense from back to front they will get a 1-1 result and move through to the next round.
Mexico and Croatia take the pitch Monday afternoon.
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