Castelao Stadium, Fortaleza
June 29, 2014; 13:00 BRT
After Mexico beat Croatia on Monday, El Tri fans went a little berserk. There were howls of protests as Mexican fans reportedly crossed the line chanting slurs at the Croatian goalkeeper, but FIFA ruled no foul had been committed. And that was just another group match. This is the fabled Round of 16.
This Sunday, the plucky Central Americans will come face to face with arguably Europe’s strongest remaining side in the tournament. The Netherlands will start as firm favorites, having dispatched the defending champions, Spain, with all the effort of a long walk on the beach. The Dutch also won their other games, beating high-flying Chile without conceding a single goal and surviving an Aussie scare. In all, the Oranje scored an intimidating 10 goals and let in less than one for every 3 they scored.
The Mexicans have had a relatively bumpier route, drawing Brazil in a goalless encounter and eking out a solitary goal-margin win over Cameroon. But that was a cakewalk compared to the nearly disastrous showing they put up en route to the World Cup; one that nearly put an end to their proud accomplishment of having made it at least to the Round of 16 in the last five editions of the FIFA World Cup.
Team News & Tactical Brief
Miguel Herrera and Hector Herrera rule the roost. The former is a genius in getting his motley crew of stars to function as a team, after their shambolic run under his predecessor de la Torre. Playing just 3 men in his defensive line, and using a packed midfield to stifle threats as soon as they become apparent, he has ensured the Mexican squad switch their styles from the robustly cautious approach against the Brazilians to the freewheeling style that saw them dismantle the formidable Croatians.
Against the Dutch who are the pastmasters of total football, expect the Mexicans to attempt to starve their opponents of space and try to poach a goal against the run of play. Crucial to Mexico’s fortunes will be their man of the moment, Hector Herrera, a 24 year old wizard currently plying his trade with Porto.
His rise to the fore has kept Mexico from feeling the pain of Juan Carlos Medina’s and Luis Montes’ absences due to injury. It is rather likely Herrera will be featured in a slightly retreated role, to make up for the suspension of natural-born holding midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez. Don’t expect his manager to publicly lend any credence to such suggestions; Miguel Herrera has made it clear he prizes an approach where El Tri “attack with 11 men, and defend with 11”. So much for the Dutch claiming rights over total football.
Mexico will do best to feature a mostly unchanged side from the one took down Croatia, in a bid to replicate Australia’s hearty performance against their opponents. The prime difference will be the rolling out of Chicharito, that poacher of goals par excellence.
Probable Starting Line-up (3-5-2): Ochoa; Rodriguez, Marquez, Moreno; Aguilar, Vazquez, Herrera, Guardado, Layun; Dos Santos, Hernandez
From a European perspective, it looks like the Dutch have picked the toughest of locations, right in the heart of South America, to aim for one last shot at football’s biggest prize before their golden generation calls it a day.
It’s hard to identify an Achilles heel in this Dutch side. In their first ever game this tournament, they annihilated the Spaniards while showing scant respect to a side that defined a generation. They seemed taken aback by the plucky Australians before proceeding to ensure normal service resumed soon enough with a comfortable 2-0 win over an unsurprisingly strong Chile side, in front of a partisan crowd at the Arena Corinthians.
Interestingly, the surly Louis van Gaal – the Dutch manager – will have one thing in common with his Mexican counterpart. They both have a preference for some variant of the unique 3-5-2 formation. Realizing his side had only young defenders in their arsenal, hailing from the relatively less competitive Eredivisie, van Gaal tinkered his formation staffing more of his wards in the defense.
In the end, he needn’t have worried. A midfield with de Jong, Arjen Robben and Sneijder and the likes of van Persie and Kuyt up front in offense, is enough to keep the ball in the other half. In any case, Feyenoord and Ajax have built their starlets into a cohesive national unit; small on name, but big on substance.
Probable Starting Line-up (5-3-2): Cillessen; Janmaat, De Vrij, Vlaar, Blind, Wijnaldum; De Jong, Sneijder, Robben; van Persie, Kuyt
The Dutch have not won a FIFA World Cup in its 84-year existence as a tournament.
The Mexicans have made it to the Round of 16 at the last 5 World Cups.
Player To Watch Out For
It might be tempting to go with Herrera, but in a midfield that will be dominated by the Dutch focus should shift towards the Mexican custodian who is almost certain to be tested more than his Dutch counterpart. It will take another special night from Guillermo Ochoa who captured hearts around the world with a resounding performance that kept the likes of Neymar, Paulinho and Thiago Silva. It remains to be seen if he can keep Arjen Robben out, too.
Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
Call his missing the game against Chile, on account of a second yellow, the calm before the storm. The Manchester United striker is in a rich vein of form, and – not to jinx the star – minus te injuries that have plagued his career. Robin van Persie will need to rely on that out-of-this world connection between him and van Gaal’s imperious midfield, to have as many shots on goal as he needs to get on the score-sheet.
Netherlands 3-1 Mexico
The Dutch are a far superior team, and while Miguel Herrera’s antics have entertained and Ochoa and co. have impressed one and all, you get the feeling that the European outfit have far more riding on this game than the El Tri do. Expect the Dutch to a comfortable win, by the margins, but one they will still have to fight all the way for.
Blast From the Past