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Croatia v Mexico: 'Anything you can do, we would have done better'

THIS is a fourth World Cup finals in succession not to be blessed with Scotland's presence although that doesn't stop supporters wondering just how they might have got on had Gordon Strachan's side made it to Brazil.

Javier Hernandez and Mexico secured a draw against the hosts and now require only a point to get out of Group A, most likely at the expense of tonight's opponents Croatia. Picture: Eduardo Verdugo/PA
Javier Hernandez and Mexico secured a draw against the hosts and now require only a point to get out of Group A, most likely at the expense of tonight's opponents Croatia. Picture: Eduardo Verdugo/PA

In this hypothetical debate on how well or poorly Scotland would have fared, most are piggybacking on Croatia as the obvious choice as our proxy representative in Rio. Not only is Croatia a similarly smallish country of near-identical population (4.3million at the last count) but they also emerged from Scotland's qualifying group, finishing as runners-up behind the imperious Belgium before defeating Iceland in a play-off. Given Croatia were also beaten home and away by Scotland - slightly fortuitously in Zagreb, more convincingly at Hampden - then it allows Scots to dream wistfully that, no matter how Niko Kovac's side get on, we would have done better, the sort of skewed logic that football fans seem quite happy to accept as a form of alternative reality.

In truth, Scotland would have struggled to have improved on how Croatia have fared so far in the competition. They were the unfortunate victims of some poor refereeing on opening night - something that, thankfully, hasn't blighted the rest of the competition as was feared at the time - as Brazil came from behind to scrape a 3-1 win. Croatia, though, played well against the hosts and tournament favourites in difficult conditions, and there could have been few complaints had they snuck out of Sao Paulo with a point.

They were bright and on the front foot from the start, deservedly taking an 11th-minute lead before circumstances conspired against them. In their post-match debrief, only a poor performance from goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa - who could possibly have kept out all three Brazil goals - would have been listed as a negative beyond the scoreline.

One good performance doesn't always beget another but in their next match it all came together for Croatia. Cameroon's World Cup campaign may have been blighted with teething problems before they had even, reluctantly, got on the plane but even if they had been at their best they would have struggled to live with Croatia, whose high-tempo display delivered four unanswered goals and three precious points.

It was a significant moment for Mario Mandzukic, in particular. The striker had sat out the defeat by Brazil due to suspension but more than atoned against Cameroon by scoring two goals and leading the line with menace, even taking an elbow in the back from Alex Song that earned the midfielder a red card. It may seem a tad peculiar to describe someone at one of the biggest clubs in the world as being "in the shop window" but with it looking almost certain that the 28-year-old will leave Bayern Munich this summer, a strong World Cup should serve to advance his options.

Mandzukic moved from Wolfsburg for £12m just two years ago and has performed well for the German champions, scoring 22 goals in his first season then 26 in his second. The imminent arrival of Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund, however, and an apparent clash of styles with head coach Pep Guardiola, mean that the two-time Croatian player of the year is likely to be on the move again this summer. Arsenal and Chelsea have both been credited with an interest and Mandzukic's bustling, hard-working style would seem to make him a good fit for a Barclays Premier League club. His international team-mates are certainly appreciative of his efforts.

"He's prepared to go out and die for the cause," said midfielder Daniel Pranjic somewhat dramatically. "He definitely makes us stronger. We need him. We're a totally different team without him."

Before Mandzukic starts to plan his next move there is, of course, the small matter of ensuring Croatia's stay in the World Cup does not come to a premature end this evening. To make it out of Group A they will probably need to beat Mexico, for whom a draw will be good enough to make it through (presumably alongside Brazil who will be strongly favoured to beat Cameroon in their final group game). It should be a compelling contest, with Croatia looking to reach the knock-out phase for the first time since 1998, when they ended up finishing third.

They are not expected to match the achievements of that golden generation - a vastly talented bunch which boasted the likes of Davor Suker, Slaven Bilic, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban - but the current crop includes players capable of producing individual moments of magic of their own. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who recently moved from Sevilla to Barcelona, offer a persistent, probing threat from midfield, while even so-called lesser lights like Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic - both of Wolfsburg - bring energy, pace and, most importantly, goals and assists in attack alongside the more celebrated Mandzukic.

They will need to be persistent to find a way past Guillermo Ochoa, whose stunning goalkeeping display earned Mexico a precious goalless draw in their previous match against Brazil, but should they get the result they need they will be celebrating in the streets of Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik. A few in Scotland might allow themselves to bask in some reflected glory, too.

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