By Mike Woitalla
We predicted Brazil would finish first in Group A, followed by Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon. And that's how it finished, although we didn't foresee that El Tri would manage to tie the host on points, finishing second on goal difference. Here's what else we learned as Group A wrapped up with a 4-1 Brazil win over Cameroon and a 3-1 Mexico victory over Croatia on Monday.
Rafa Leads. Many, especially those who watched Rafael Marquez’s three seasons (2010-12) with the Red Bulls, shook their heads when Mexico coach Miguel Herrera recalled the central defender and gave him the captain’s band. Now we see Marquez leading a defense that gave up only one goal in three World Cup games. After a 1-0 win over Cameroon and a scoreless tie with Brazil, El Tri led Croatia, 3-0, with three minutes left when it conceded its first goal. Marquez also scored Mexico’s first goal of the game, a header in the 72nd minute, and set up the third, nodding on a corner kick that Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez finished with his head.
El Tri is well-balanced. Complementing its so far successful defense, in which goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa has played superbly behind Marquez and Francisco “El Maza” Rodriguez, is a dynamic midfield led by Andres Guardado, who scored the second against Croatia and Hector Herrera, a member of Mexico’s 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning team. Although just needing a tie, they orchestrated waves of attacks in the second half that doomed the Croatians. Hernandez has adjusted very well to duty off the bench, giving El Tri a spark whenever he enters. And on Monday he helped set up Guardado’s goal before hitting his 36th goal to make him Mexico’s third all-time leading scorer.
Round of 16 Syndrome. Mexico has now reached the second round of the last six World Cups. But it exited the previous five in the round of 16. It has, starting with the 1994 World Cup, fallen to Bulgaria, Germany, the USA, Argentina and Argentina. Breaking the streak will not be easy. El Tri faces the red hot Netherlands. They’ve met only once in a World Cup: a 2-2 tie in 1998 group play.
If not for Neymar? The 4-1 scoreline indicated a comfortable win but playing against an already eliminated Cameroon team the Brazilians again struggled to find a rhythm and needed a Neymar to take control. After his sharp 17th-minute finish, Cameroon stunned the home crowd with a 26th-minute equalizer. Neymar, as he did when Brazil struggled against Croatia in the opener, swept through the middle and hit a blazing low shot into the net. He also treated us to a sombrero, a back-heel volley pass and a Maradona spin move. Center forward Fred final got a goal and Fernandinho finished off the not so Indomitable Lions. But Brazil, which now faces Chile, still doesn’t look like the best team at this tournament.