Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez scored second-half goals as Mexico advanced to the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Croatia on Monday at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil.
Nerves ran high for both sides following a scoreless first half, but El Tri took control of the match with three goals in 10 minutes, beginning with Marquez's opener 18 minutes from time.
Ivan Perisic scored a late consolation goal for Croatia, who saw Ante Rebic sent off just before full-time.
With the win, Mexico finished second in Group A with seven points, behind group winners Brazil on goal difference. El Tri will now face the Netherlands, who won Group B with a perfect record, in the Round of 16.
This is the sixth straight time Mexico have qualified for the knockout round, a run dating back to 1994. And despite struggling through qualification, Miguel Herrera's side will be full of confidence after impressing throughout group play.
Croatia, meanwhile, finished third in the group with three points. Niko Kovac's side needed a win over Mexico to advance, but instead bowed out in disappointing fashion.
Both teams created moments of danger in the first half, though Mexico carved out the better chances. El Tri nearly went ahead in the 16th minute, when Hector Herrera hit a thundering shot off the crossbar from distance. Oribe Peralta found another opening three minutes later, but the Mexico forward slipped after running onto a through ball in the box, sending his weak shot well off target.
For Croatia, Danijel Pranjic shot over the bar on the rebound in the 27th minute, and Perisic blazed another effort off target two minutes later.
Needing a goal—and a win—to stay alive, Croatia brought on Mateo Kovacic for Sime Vrsaljko in the 58th minute. Mexico responded with the introduction of Hernandez in place of Giovani Dos Santos four minutes later.
Soon after, Mexico had two missed penalties within seconds.
First, Hernandez appeared to be fouled in the 64th minute while trying to meet a high ball with a header in Croatia's box. Moments later, Darijo Srna clearly stopped Guardado's volley with his outstretched arms. Mexico were furious, but referee Ravshan Irmatov waved play on.
El Tri's outrage was short-lived. Mexico finally took the lead in the 72nd minute, and it was El Capitan doing the honours. Herrera was the provider, curling in a cross from the left for an unmarked Marquez, who headed in low at the far post for the breakthrough goal.
As ESPN's Tom Marshall noted, the goal was "deserved:"
Just three minutes later, it was 2-0.
Hernandez started a fine move on the right with a layoff to Peralta along the edge of the box. Peralta then crossed to the back post for Guardado, who side-footed in at first touch.
Leading by two goals, Mexico had one foot firmly in the knockout round. But El Tri still had to be alert in the 78th minute, Hector Moreno clearing off the line from Rebic's low shot.
But if any doubts remained, Mexico were about to dispel them. The third goal arrived in the 82nd minute as Hernandez headed in unmarked at the far post. Both previous goalscorers were involved in the buildup, Guardado curling in the corner from the right and Marquez heading the ball on for Chicharito to finish Croatia off.
With a three-goal lead, Mexico suddenly needed just one more to beat Brazil to first place in Group A. It wasn't to be, though, as Croatia pulled a goal back in the 87th minute, Perisic finishing from a tight angle off of Ivan Rakitic's clever back-pass in the box.
It offered little in the way of relief for Croatia, though, as Rebic was sent off two minutes later for a high, late challenge on Carlos Pena.
|Croatia Player Ratings|
|Mateo Kovacic (for Vrsaljko, 58')||N/A||5|
|Ante Rebic (for Olic, 69')||N/A||4|
|Nikica Jelavic (for Pranjic, 74')||N/A||6|
|Mexico Player Ratings|
|Giovani Dos Santos||5||5|
|Javier Hernandez (for Dos Santos, 62')||N/A||7|
|Carlos Pena (for Peralta, 79')||N/A||6|
|Marco Fabian (for Guardado, 84')||N/A||6|
Mexico coach Miguel Herrera (via Mandeep Sanghera of BBC Sport):
We overcame the first hurdle. We're happy.
That is one of the happiest days of my life. It was a hard fight, but my team pulled through. We felt as if we were playing at home in Mexico.
We're going to celebrate tonight but tomorrow we have to start thinking of our match with the Netherlands.
Croatia coach Niko Kovac (h/t Joe Wright of Goal.com):
Congratulations to Mexico, for 50 minutes they were better team. That is football: when it comes to equal teams, little details decide it. This time those details were two dead-ball situations.
Mexico gave us a lot of respect, they didn't play with pressing as usual because they knew about our counterattacks. In the second half maybe we were physically down, and Mexico were better. We gave some joy to the Croatian people, especially after first two matches, but today the opponent was better.