If there was ever a case study in the never-ending reverses of fortune soccer can bring, exhibit No. 1 would be Mexico’s national soccer team.
A morbid qualification that resulted in three different coaches, a fourth-place finish in CONCACAF’s hexagonal standings and a final playoff victory over New Zealand didn’t exactly inspire confidence as El Tri headed to Brazil for the World Cup.
After three Group A games, it’s clear coach Miguel Herrera and his squad have moved past recent struggles. In fact, the Mexicans bear no resemblance to the same team that claimed only two wins in their last 10 qualifiers and required a last second tally from United States midfielder Graham Zusi against Panama to even get a shot at the Kiwis.
After slugging their way to a win over Cameroon in the opener, a memorable performance from goaltender Guillermo Ochoa allowed the Mexicans to escape with a draw against home-standing Brazil. Then in their finest performance of the tournament, Mexico got goals from ageless Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez to down a talented, yet disjointed Croatia 3-1 on Monday.
For Herrera and his team, vindication has come quickly. The Mexicans defended expertly against the desperate Croatians and demonstrated a creative edge that had lacked in buildup to the World Cup. Ochoa continued his excellent performance in net while Marquez kept the defense tight and organized. Up top, Oribe Peralta looks like potential star of the future with his combination of well-timed runs and attacking style in the penalty area.
In other words, Mexico are rolling right now. Even more impressively, El Tri qualified for the knockout stages for the sixth consecutive World Cup, a feat that speaks to the program’s ability to sustain performance over the years.
The issue now facing Herrera and company is a date with another fast moving freight train in the Netherlands.
Four years after being tripped up in an ugly title game, the Dutch appear more focused than ever. Coach Louis Van Gaal’s squad broke out offensively in their three preliminary games, finding the net 10 times to emphatically take first in Group B.
With all that firmly in mind, Mexican fans will now begin asking the biggest question of their team’s 2014 World Cup campaign: Is this the year El Tri finally move beyond the final 16?
Since beginning their streak of knockout qualifications in 1994, Mexico have been eliminated by Bulgaria, Germany, the United States and twice by Argentina in the round of 16. Will the Netherlands add their name to the list? The world will find out on June 29.
Mexico certainly appear to be in good position to deal with the high-powered Dutch, especially if Marquez can remain on the same page with fellow defenders Miguel Layun, Francisco Rodriguez, Hector Moreno and Paul Aguilar. Their ability to contain the wing play of Arjen Robben, along with the playmaking skills of Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie, will determine whether the Mexicans can continue their inspiring run in Brazil.
Regardless of results against the Netherlands, one thing is clear — Mexico have regained their swagger. How far their recent form can take them remains to be seen.