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Mexico put faith in tested tactics and Olympic spirit

FORTALEZA'S impressive Estadio Castelao, revamped and state-of-the-art as it may be, contains no shortage of ghosts for the members of the Mexican national team.

Mexico intend to replicate the tactics they used to thwart Neymar in the 2012 Olympic final. Picture: EPA
Mexico intend to replicate the tactics they used to thwart Neymar in the 2012 Olympic final. Picture: EPA

Should there be a sense of claustrophobia and a film of sweat on the brow when they pass through its doors tonight, it is more likely to be connected to the sight of an in-form Neymar stepping out again for Brazil than anything to do with the predicted 85-degree temperatures and high humidity.

Almost exactly a year ago, the latest poster boy of this football-obsessed nation, preparing to take his career to the next level with a transfer from Santos to Barcelona, tore the Mexicans apart in the very same arena on their way to winning the Confederations Cup.

The Brazilian forward opened the scoring within 10 minutes of that encounter in with a perfectly-executed volley and, following a fine display which deserved greater reward, set up substitute Jo to make it 2-0 in stoppage-time with a bewildering display of close control and grace under pressure inside the penalty area.

Fresh from scoring twice in his side's opening World Cup win over Croatia last week, the scene is set for the 22-year-old - hair tinted blond for the occasion - to haunt Mexico all over again and put Luiz Felipe Scolari's side on the brink of a place in the last 16.

When finding yourself in foreign fields against a formidable enemy exuding strength and confidence, it is natural to seek comfort and reassurance through transporting your mind back to happier times of prosperity, glory and achievement.

That is precisely what is going on within the El Tricolor camp right now. Faced with hot and oppressive conditions, Mexico are immersing themselves in the heady days of a pleasant August afternoon in England and the accompanying memories of a Neymar decidedly less energised than today.

No less than 10 of Miguel Herrera's squad were at Wembley in 2012 when Mexico won Olympic football gold for the first time by beating Brazil 2-1 in front of an 86,182 crowd. This was a Brazil side of some pedigree, too.

Sure, it did not contain every one of the men Scolari will call upon tonight, but Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Oscar and Hulk - all starters in that 3-1 triumph over Croatia - were on the park.

Neymar, save for one shot which was blazed hopelessly over the bar just after the interval, was largely anonymous. He is a more complete player now, of course, but Herrera has focused his gameplan on subduing him again.

Mexico have said all the right things as the match draws closer. However, their passionate and opinionated coach revealed in an interview staged just before the opening of the tournament that the tactics used by Luis Fernando Tena to achieve history at London 2012 are at the forefront of his mind.

"Neymar didn't see much of the ball that day and that is why Mexico won the final," said Herrera, who took over for Mexico in time to steer the side to qualification via a 9-3 aggregate win over New Zealand in the play-offs. "We'll try to do the same thing. We are going to try and cut off the service.

"Given that, this time, we're facing the senior Brazil side, there will be even more quality players. However, we are a better team and there is more individual quality than in the Olympic squad. We will fight for every ball as if it is the last ball of the game and we will run much further than them."

Oribe Peralta, the striker whose effort gave Mexico a deserved 1-0 win over Cameroon in their Group A opener, scored the goals which established a two-goal lead over Brazil at Wembley. He expects a real spectacle in Fortaleza and shares Herrera's optimism.

"We know how to play them," he added. "If we can take possession from them, we can hurt them. We know we can beat them. They also have the pressure of playing at home and we will try to use that. It is going to be a very attractive game."

While Neymar took little from the Olympic final, it also created one particularly unpleasant memory for Oscar. Shortly after Hulk had given Brazil a late lifeline, the Chelsea midfielder missed a terrific opportunity to level the score in stoppage-time. "The Olympic gold is something Brazil has never won and it was hard to lose in the final," he recalled.

Oscar was outstanding in Brazil's win over Croatia, setting up Neymar for the opening goal, providing the pass from which Fred was awarded a controversial penalty and easing the pressure on his side late on with a toe-poked finish. He is looking for more, though. "We hope to repeat the good things from that game [Brazil's win in the Confederation Cup last year], correct the bad things and be almost perfect."

Much attention was placed on the Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, following a flaky display in the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, but Cafu - a two-time World Cup winner and the only player to have performed in three finals - believes that cannot be allowed to obscure the true story of the night.

"It was a dubious penalty, but that was not the main reason for Brazil winning," he said. "Oscar was key. He is a great player."

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