Editor’s note: Follow the live minute-to-minute of Netherlands vs. Mexico here.
Mexico knows this stage of World Cup all too well. It has reached the Round of 16 in each of the past six tournaments. The process of navigating through the group phase is easy enough for El Tri. It is what they do after that juncture that often proves most perplexing.
Each of the past five appearances in the knockout stage ended at the first hurdle. Mexico, by and large, were good enough to advance out of the group and not quite good enough to march any father.
There is hope and optimism for a different outcome this time, though. Mexico impressed in three group matches and secured second spot in Group A with two wins and a draw from three attempts. There is finally reason to believe Mexico can dispatch the Netherlands in Fortaleza (live now) and reach the last eight for the first time on foreign soil.
Mexico manager Miguel Herrera struck a confident tone in his remarks to the press on Saturday with his side one step away from fulfilling the pre-tournament objective of securing a quarterfinal place. He explained the defeats of the past, lauded the sturdy opposition and reinforced his faith in his players to deliver a different ending to this encouraging run.
“They are a great rival with great players and a great coach,” Herrera said during his press conference in Fortaleza. “They had a good group stage, but we are confident and determined. It will be difficult, but we will win.”
The confidence arises from the combination of grit and panache displayed during the group stage. Mexico located its verve for the first time in a while and profited from all of the work done by Herrera and his players over the past few months. The defense looked strong. The midfield functioned well. The attack produced enough sharpness to score four times and watch the assistant referee chalk off two more against Cameroon.
El Tri did not stumble through its first three assignments. It strutted through with the intent of a team fully aware of its ability and took a bow after the final flourish against Croatia guaranteed a place in the next round. It enters this match against a formidable Dutch side as a group capable of upsetting the odds.
“We not only made it through the group phase, we did it deservedly and in style, in a way we’re pleased with and which gives us a lot of confidence,” Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado told FIFA.com on Saturday. “Even so, despite what we’ve done, we’ve not achieved anything tangible just yet and our mission is by no means accomplished.”
This task presents some stern challenges. Mexico will not possess a structural advantage with Netherlands usually aligned in a 5-3-2 setup. Each player must cope with his individual assignment against an adversary well drilled in the task ahead. It is a difficult brief for both sides, but the peril is perhaps greater for El Tri given the Netherlands’ swashbuckling route through Group B. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie (perfectly fresh after serving a ban in the 2-0 victory over Chile on Tuesday) present considerable issues for a back three without a turn of pace to cope on the break, while Louis van Gaal boasts some flexibility off the bench to alter tack and ramp up the tempo even further.
Curtailing those Dutch counters will prove even more difficult without the services of combative midfielder José Juan Vázquez due to suspension. Vázquez covered ably his midfield colleagues supported Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta. His effective work as the deepest member of the central midfield trio contributed significantly to the overall balance of the side. Carlos Salcido must rely on his intelligence instead of his legs to fill Vázquez’s role, but there is some responsibility to share among the rest of the group to limit his exposure and his lack of pace.
“Carlos is a guy with a lot of experience,” Herrera said. “He may not have the intensity (of Vázquez), but he has the timing and the willingness to retrieve the ball. He also positions himself well and has a shot from distance that could prove decisive.”
It is no coincidence that most remarks eventually turn toward the overarching objective at this point. It is about overcoming this Round of 16 hurdle and sealing a place in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986. This group — even with the one enforced change in central midfield — believes the past few months provide the perfect foundation for success where only failure has lurked for so long.
“In the five official matches we’ve had with the Mexican national team, I think we’ve made the right choices, we’ve chosen the right people, we’ve made the appropriate changes and the right modifications,” Herrera said. “And in each of those games, we’ve faced the same pressure as we will against the Netherlands.”
It is one thing to embrace the burden ahead and quite another to cope with it. Mexico buckled under similar weight in the past. It now hopes this time — and this team — can finally carry the load, deliver on the promise of its tournament to date and end this Round of 16 hex once and for all.