Croatia 0 Mexico 1
Mexico left 10-man Croatia with it all to do to get out of Group G as Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s second-half penalty sealed a hard-fought 1-0 victory over the France 98 semi-finalists in their opening World Cup match in Niigata.
Having soaked up much of Croatia’s early pressure, Mexico dominated possession and took their chance when Blanco scored from the spot on the hour mark.
Former Portsmouth man Robert Prosinecki had the first real chance of the match after just three minutes, but curled a free-kick over the Mexican crossbar from just outside the area.
Croatia went close again three minutes later, but Oscar Perez made an outstanding one-handed save to keep Josip Simunic’s header flying into the far corner.
Croatia continued to huff and puff, with Zvonimir Soldo curling a shot narrowly over after a clever flick from Simunic, but they failed to blow Mexico’s house down.
At the other end, Blanco proved, as expected, to be Mexico’s star performer in the first half but his fancy touches failed to produce a clear-cut opening for his side.
The Real Valladolid playmaker thrilled the Mexican fans with his trademark, ’bunny hop’ manoeuvre, but neither side could break the deadlock.
Jared Borgetti was inches away from connecting with Gabriel Caballero’s low cross, while Blanco could only head Ramon Morales’ corner straight at Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa. Borgetti then stabbed wide from six yards after a Morales miscue diverted the ball into his path.
The second half followed a similar pattern, with Croatia starting brightly.
Milan Rapaic, a half-time replacement for the largely ineffectual Prosinecki, saw his thunderous header parried to safety by Perez, before the same player blasted a 25-metre free-kick just wide of an upright.
When Mexico did eventually take the lead, it was from the penalty spot. Borgetti’s delightful backheel played Blanco in behind the Croatian defence and his progress was crudely interrupted by a late tackle from Bayer Leverkusen’s Boris Zivkovic.
Zivkovic was duly given his marching orders and Blanco dusted himself down to send Pletikosa the wrong way with his spot-kick.
With Croatia reduced to 10 men, coach Mirko Jozic opted to replace captain Davor Suker, the top scorer at France 98, with Panathinaikos anchorman Daniel Saric.
The lively Niko Kovac, brother of team-mate Robert, was pushed forward in support of Middlesbrough’s Alen Boksic, making his World Cup debut at the age of 32.
The one-man disadvantage took the sting out of Croatia’s attacking play, but they continued to fight and were unlucky when Rapaic had his shot blocked.
As the match wore on, tempers became frayed and there was a 10-minute period when several players threatened to join Zivkovic in the dressing room.
Kovac and Mexico coach Javier Aguierre exchanged words on the sidelines and the tackles continued to fly in from all angles.
The shaven-headed Gerardo Torrado became an increasingly influential figure at the heart of the Mexican midfield, as his side threatened to add to their tally. On the other hand, Croatia looked dead on their feet by the end.
Many expected Croatia, who finished third at the last World Cup, to edge this encounter but they were undone by a piece of Mexican magic and Jozic must now return to the drawing board.