By FRANCO PANIZO
RECIFE, Brazil — Mexico’s World Cup hopes were in the balance for much of its match against Croatia, but a second-half surge led by captain Rafa Marquez saw El Tri finish group play with an impressive win and a Round of 16 berth.
Mexico scored three goals inside of the last 18 minutes to break a scoreless deadlock and pick up a 3-1 win over Croatia at Arena Pernambuco on Monday night. Marquez led the way for the Mexicans in the chippy affair, soaring high to head home the opener in the 72nd minute and assisting on a Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez strike 10 minutes later.
The Croatians, who were eliminated with the defeat, allowed their frustrations to get the best of them. They finished with 10 men after substitute Ante Rebic was sent off with a straight red card for a late, studs-up challenge.
“There was a lot emotion because it wasn’t an easy game,” said Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. “It was a game of a lot of pressure and tension. I think the joy we felt was felt in Mexico as well. When the goals came and it was a relief because they were obligated to win and we should lots of personality in being able to come out on top.”
The result saw Mexico finish in second place of Group A behind Brazil with seven points. El Tri will now meet Group B winner the Netherlands in the first round of the knockout phase in Fortaleza on Sunday.
Marquez opened the scoring in the 72nd minute, rising over Croatia centerback Vedran Corluka to meet a corner kick from the left and nod it home. The veteran also got on the end of another corner 10 minutes later, flicking the ball towards the back post where an open Hernandez had to just push the ball home with his head.
“The first 70 or so minutes, we were in the game,” said Croatia midfielder Luka Modric. “We needed one goal and after Mexico scored from set piece, that was a big setback for us. I think they were better team. They were better team and they deserve to go through.”
While Marquez shone for his late heroics, it was Andres Guardado who scored the winner in the 75th minute. Mexico hit on a quick counterattack against a Croatia side that threw numbers forward, and Guardado finished off the play with a hard finish that stung past goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Croatia found a late consolation goal through Ivan Perisic, but even that 87th-minute strike was overshadowed by Rebic’s red card. Rebic made a late and high challenge on Carlos Pena, and referee Ravshan Irmatov did not hesitate to send the Croatian for an early shower.
Irmatov was involved in another play in the 64th minute, when he decided to wave off Mexico’s appeals for a handball in the penalty area. Croatia captain Darijo Srna used his outstretched arms to block a Guardado shot, but Irmatove signaled only for a corner kick.
“Unfortunately, once again a play that was not in our control happened but once again it ended up not affecting us,” said Ochoa, referencing two wrongly-disallowed goals in Mexico’s win over Cameroon. “Hopefully, if it happens again it goes our way, but we need to keep the mindset that we need to score goals and beat our opponents.”
For the first 72 minutes of the game played in front of a pro-Mexico crowd that made Arena Pernambuco feel like Estadio Azteca, both sides enjoyed good spells of possession but were lacking in the final third.
Hector Herrera came close to scoring for Mexico early when he hit an absolute rocket after some nifty passing through the center of the field in the 16th minute, but he was denied by the crossbar.
It would take Mexico much of the rest of the game to have another quality chance on goal, but Marquez made no mistake on his header in the 72nd minute and it inspired El Tri’s late scoring outburst to send them into the Round of 16 with a 2-0-1 record.
“Tomorrow we’ll start thinking about them,” said Hernandez of playing the Netherlands. “Now, we’re still enjoying this victory that we qualified and tomorrow is going to be the next day and we’re going to turn the page and start thinking about Holland.”