What to watch for:
With only one goal conceded in the group stage, Mexico’s steely defense was a crucial part of their success. Goalkeeper Memo Ochoa was otherworldly, making save after save to keep El Tri alive and impressing especially in the team’s 0-0 draw with Brazil. In that match, Mexico was able to find success by bottling up Neymar and Oscar, keeping both away from the center of the pitch and the ball away from their feet in dangerous positions. By barricading them on the touchline, Mexico effectively shut off Brazil’s main creative engines.
Mexico will need to do the same against the Dutch when it comes to winger Arjen Robben. Against Brazil, manager Miguel Herrera effectively played five in defense, turning Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún from wing-backs to full-backs for most of the match—keeping them deep and conservatively-postured until the team had gained comfortable possession of the ball. One would expect them to sit similarly deep against the Oranje, who are so deadly in transition and successful when given space to run on the flanks.
Another tall order will be stopping playmaker Wesley Sneijder—a task that will be up to a different Mexican with the last name Herrera—Porto midfielder Hector—and a player yet to be determined who will replace the suspended José Juan Vázquez. That player is likely to be veteran Carlos Salcido, who made his name in Europe as an outside back, but has been used as a central midfielder since returning to Mexico to play his club ball a few years ago. Look for both Herrera and Vázquez’s replacement to be on Sneijder’s back constantly, cutting down space immediately as he receives the ball. Sneijder is at his most dangerous when he has room to operate near goal, so the further away he is (and the more often he is facing away from it) the better for El Tri.
That’s no easy task, as with 10 goals in three games, the Netherlands have been flying in attack. Their 5-1 victory over Spain sent shockwaves across the soccer world when they tore apart La Furia Roja with a high-pressure, direct style of play that looked to find Robben and Robin van Persie in space behind the defense. Outside backs Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat have been pushed up so high that they appear to be midfielders at times. Look for Blind’s pinpoint service and Janmaat’s marauding runs to be crucial against Mexico, who may lose steam on both sides of the ball if overloaded on the flanks.
Prediction: Netherlands win.
What to watch for:
Costa Rica have been the surprise package in this tournament, going undefeated and topping Group D over England, Italy and Uruguay.
In a style familiar to USA, Mexico, and the rest of CONCACAF, the Ticos are pacy going forward and look to attack the moment they win the ball back. Their counter is cutthroat and they are clinical in the box, both from the run of play and on set pieces.
Between Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz, and Christian Bolaños, Costa Rica’s frontline is led by three players who are competent when allowed to run at a defense, but truly thrive when they encounter one that is flat-footed and struggles to cut out through balls.
They found that defense in their opening match against Uruguay—and it can also describe Greece depending on the day.
The Greeks struggled mightily against Colombia in their opener, conceding a great deal of space on the touchline and allowing the South Americans to have their way in the channels. They cannot let this happen again against Costa Rica, who are similarly impressive when given the space to pick out an open teammate in the area.
Under manager Fernando Santos, Greece have a little bit of the DNA of the EURO 2004-winning squad that bunkered and countered its way to glory in Santos’ native Portugal. Nevertheless, there seems to be more attacking dynamism present in the squad—or at least there was in the team’s last match against Ivory Coast, a game they needed to win in order to advance. Fullbacks José Holebas and Vasileios Torosidis played energetic two-way football, early substitute Andreas Samaris came into the midfield to kickstart the Greek attack from deep-lying positions, and Georgios Samaras, as he always seems to, managed to come through in the clutch for his team, winning a penalty and converting it to send the Greeks into the last 16 in injury time.
Progression into the quarterfinals will be a tough ask and the Greeks, as they are wont to do, may just sit deep, hope for the best, and wait to find an opening to strike. Having Samaris involved from the get-go, though, may change the team’s philosophy, giving them a bit more attacking oomph and belief in their ability to force the game onto their opponents, rather than just trying to survive.
We’ll see the Greece of old on Sunday, defending for their lives for most of the match. If they concede early, though, Greece will be forced to open things up—and that may just work to their advantage.
Prediction: Costa Rica win.