Mexico reached the World Cup last 16 with a near-perfect display of counter-attacking football as Javier Hernandez provided the spark for a 3-1 win over Croatia on Monday that left them as Group A runners-up.
Mexico, who will face the Netherlands in the last 16, had looked happy to hold out for the draw that would have put them into the knockout stages before the Manchester United forward came off the bench to turn the match on its head.
Within 10 minutes of Hernandez entering the fray in the second half, Rafael Marquez put Mexico ahead with a powerful header, Andres Guardado rounded off a swift counter-attack and Hernandez himself struck with a close-range header.
It was the striker’s first international goal since last year’s Confederations Cup and capped an all-round performance in which his energy, clever movement and precise hold-up play proved the difference in a previously cagey clash.
“We needed someone who would revolutionise (our game),” Mexico’s jubilant coach Miguel Herrera told reporters.
“Javier did a very good job, he came in held the ball and did very well and even got a goal which was great…
“We know he gives everything and we are very happy with his attitude today and all the time.”
Mexico, securing a sixth successive appearance in the second round, finished second in the group with seven points, behind Brazil on goal difference after the hosts beat Cameroon 4-1.
They briefly flirted with top spot, needing one more goal to depose Brazil before the tournament hosts got a fourth against their African opponents.
Croatia, who began the match chasing a victory that would have sent them through, grabbed a late consolation through Ivan Perisic before substitute Ante Rebic was sent off in the dying stages for a studs-up challenge.
Having been bullish in the lead-up to the match, Croatia boss Niko Kovac was generous in defeat, pointing the finger of blame for their second-half capitulation down to a formation change intended to help them chase the game.
“We tried to turn the situation around,” he said of his decision to revert to their more common 4-2-3-1 set-up.
“When we conceded the first goal, it meant we had to score two, we were wide open and they finished us off on the break.”
With only one team needing to win, it was perhaps inevitable that Mexico would adopt a no-risk strategy that involved keeping sufficient numbers behind the ball and inviting Croatia to press in the hope of hitting them on the counter.
With the Pernambuco arena jam-packed with green-clad fans with reams of novelty sombreros dotted among the stands, an continued…