RECIFE, Brazil: Croatia’s World Cup shootout with Mexico for a spot in the last 16 pitches Mario Mandzukic, a gunslinger who is back among the goals, against Guillermo Ochoa, a goalkeeper who has shown a unique ability to keep his team alive.
Mandzukic, Croatia’s principle attacking weapon, will be looking to add to the two he scored on his return from suspension in their 4-0 win over Cameroon, but the obstacle in his path, Mexico’s maverick shot-stopper Ochoa, has already put up a one-man barricade to keep Brazil at bay today.
The prize on offer in today’s decisive Group A clash in Recife is a spot in the knockout stages, with Mexico, who have four points from their opening two salvos, knowing a draw will enough to see them safely through.
Niko Kovac’s Croatia, a point behind, will almost certainly need to win, although a draw would suffice if the already-eliminated Cameroon can produce one of the biggest shocks of all time against Brazil in a match played simultaneously in Brasilia.
If Croatia are to come through, the 28-year-old Bayern Munich forward Mandzukic, who was sorely missed in their opening 3-1 defeat to Brazil, will need to be sharp.
“It was great to have Mandzukic back, he is one of the best strikers in the world,” said team mate Ivan Perisic, who made his own mark on the Cameroon win with a superb solo goal.
“Playing with the likes of him, (Luka) Modric and (Ivan) Rakitic is a big motive because they make all of us better players.”
In making two outstanding saves to deny Neymar, Ochoa proved decisive in Mexico’s 0-0 draw with Brazil that ended the hosts’ 10-game winning streak.
He went full length to brilliantly beat out a header from Neymar in the first half, evoking memories of England great Gordon Banks’s famous diving stop against Pele in 1970.
He then blocked a fierce shot from the forward in the second half and stopped a thumping Thiago Silva header on the line late on to leave Brazil facing their own final game decider against Cameroon.
“Mexico are a quick and skilled side, Ochoa had a great game against Brazil but if we repeat the Cameroon performance I think we have a fair chance of coming out on top,” Perisic added.
Croatia have not reached the last-16 since their impressive third place finish in the 1998 tournament.
Kovac is unlikely to ring too many changes to his side but attacking midfielder Mateo Kovacic could return for Brazilian-born Sammir, one of the few players who failed to impress against Cameroon.
Mexico have made a habit of making it out of their group, having reached the knockout stages in the last five World Cups.
The Group A winner will face the runner-up in Group B and vice versa, with the Netherlands and Chile playing each other in their final match to decide who finishes first in that pool. AFP