RECIFE, Brazil (AP) — Mexico surged into the World Cup’s knockout stage for a sixth straight time Monday with a 3-1 win over Croatia.
Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scored in a 10-minute span in the second half, dooming a talented Croatia side to elimination from the group stage.
The Croats had to win to advance and held the bulk of possession, but had trouble seriously threatening goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who kept out all efforts until an 87th-minute consolation goal from Ivan Perisic.
Mexico entered the game needing only a draw, and looked dangerous in attack, but was kept out until the three-goal burst. The result gave Mexico a second-place finish behind Brazil in Group A and set up a second-round meeting with Group B winner the Netherlands.
“We overcame the first hurdle. We’re happy,” Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said, adding that the team would dine with their families in Recife later Monday night. “We’re going to celebrate tonight but tomorrow we have to start thinking of our match with the Netherlands.”
Marquez struck first, beating Croatia defender Vedran Corluka to head home Hector Herrera’s corner kick in the 72nd minute. Three minutes later, Guardado found the net with a hard, left-footed, one-time shot after a cross from Oribe Peralta.
Then in the 82nd, Hernandez, the popular Manchester United striker who has been a second-half substitute in all three of Mexico’s matches, scored with a header after Herrera’s corner had glanced off the head of Marquez.
“Mexico was equal in the first half. We tried to (attack) and left spaces in the second half,” Croatia defender Danijel Pranjic said. “They scored on set plays and Marquez killed us.”
Croatia, which changed to a more offensive formation after midfielder Mateo Kovacic replaced Sime Vrsaljko in the 58th minute, didn’t score until it was too late, with Perisic sliding a shot past Ochoa after being set up by a neat backheel pass from Ivan Rakitic.
“It’s a moot point whether we should have kept it nil-nil until the last 10 minutes and then go all out on the attack,” Croatia coach Niko Kovac said. “We decided to attack earlier, but it wasn’t successful.”
It was the first goal Mexico has conceded in the World Cup, but “El Tri” hardly seemed to mind when the final whistle sounded and a lively, heavily Mexican crowd in Arena Pernambuco erupted.
“Today we felt as if we were playing at home in Mexico,” coach Miguel Herrera said.
Mexico appeared to be laboring through a downspell before this World Cup. It struggled just to qualify out of CONCACAF and fired three coaches in a year’s time before Miguel Herrera took over and ultimately rescued Mexico’s hopes by soundly beating New Zealand in a last-chance qualifier.
In the hours leading up to the match, Miguel Herrera, known as a coach of the people for the way he engages fans on social media and at times in public, implored the Mexico faithful to “stay together” and sing the national anthem “like never before.”
Mexican fans, whose green jerseys distinguished them as the overwhelming majority in the crowd, did not disappoint, belting out a thunderous rendition.
Croatia had expected to play before a crowd heavily in Mexico’s favor, with star Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric saying on the eve of the match that the game would not be won in the stands, and that his side was motivated to silence the crowd.
Croatia players were heckled each time they took a corner kick, and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa was heckled whenever he touched the ball.
Mexico’s attacking play also enlivened the crowd, particularly a sizzling 25-yard shot by Hector Herrera that rattled the crossbar in the 16th minute.
In the 19th, Oribe Peralta pounced on a bounding ball from Herrera in the penalty area, but his sliding attempt to chip over the advancing Pletikosa went wide.
Croatia enjoyed the bulk of possession in the opening 45 minutes, but didn’t force Ochoa to make a single save.