Recife: When Andres Guardado of Mexico finally freed himself from a swarm of teammates Monday and emerged back under the floodlights of the crammed stadium here, he crouched along the touchline, pointed a finger down to his knees as he comically wiggled his legs, and vigorously shook his head from side to side.
A smile stretched across his face as he soaked in the deafening cheers.
The night before Mexico and Croatia met in this Group A game, with a spot in the World Cup's knockout round very much up for grabs, Croatia coach Niko Kovac suggested that his team had nothing to fear, that if anyone's knees were to tremble, it should be the players of Mexico.
But Guardado and Mexico demolished that notion Monday, playing near-perfect defense and producing a late flurry of goals to outclass Croatia, 3-1, at Arena Pernambuco in Recife. With the win, and a simultaneous victory by Brazil, Mexico finished second in Group A and earned a meeting in the Round of 16 with the Netherlands, which won Group B.
It was a stirring achievement for a team that barely made it through qualification last year and a clear validation of charismatic coach Miguel Herrera, who took over a deeply troubled squad in October. But Mexico has made the second round of every Cup since 1994. The team's real goal is the quarterfinal - which it has not reached since 1986 - and beyond.
"I think the important phrase within the team is 'make history,'" said captain Rafael Marquez, who opened the scoring with a header in the 72nd minute. "We're doing it step by step, match by match."
The high stakes created a palpably tense atmosphere inside the stadium. Both teams were operating under the assumption that Brazil would handle Cameroon in a concurrent game - and the Brazilians did, winning, 4-1 - meaning their paths to the second round were simple: Mexico would need at least a draw, while Croatia would advance with a win.
But Mexico never looked passive, and it seized the berth with a burst of three goals in 10 minutes.
First, Hector Herrera swirled in a corner kick from the left side, and as it zipped across the mouth of goal, Marquez rose to knock the ball into the lower right corner of the net. Celebratory debris rained from the upper tiers as Marquez jumped joyfully into the air.
Guardado's tally and swaggering celebration followed quickly, in the 75th minute, when he broke free in the left side of the penalty area, took a long, clean pass from Oribe Peralta and slashed a side-footed lightning bolt under the crossbar.
The noise had hardly waned when, seven minutes later, beleaguered striker Javier Hernandez nodded in a third goal for Mexico off a corner kick service from Marquez.
"It was a week in which we worked on set pieces, on offense and defense," said Herrera, who theatrically thrashed his arms around after each goal. "We reaped the benefits today."
Croatia fizzled out of the tournament after producing strong showings in an opening loss to Brazil and a 4-0 demolition of Cameroon. Ivan Perisic scored its only goal in the 87th minute, finishing from a tight angle, but two minutes later, Ante Rebic was shown a straight red card after a studs-up challenge.
At the news conference Sunday night, Kovac was highly complimentary of Mexico, but he nevertheless provided a choice sound bite that clearly made it back to his opponents: "If anybody's knees should tremble, it should be theirs," Kovac said.
When questioned by a reporter about whether he may have provided Mexico additional motivation, as evidenced by Guardado's clear reference to his comments, Kovac brushed aside the premise.
"If I do not have the right to hope, to be optimistic, then let's finish this whole thing," Kovac said after the game through an interpreter. "You're wrong in thinking I wanted to cause offense to anybody."
Both Mexico's players and its fans seemed to have a chip on their shoulders. Herrera, an avid Twitter user, sent out a message Sunday that read, "Tomorrow we must ensure the Mexican anthem is heard like never before, so the Croats from that instant know who we are."
The fans listened. Mexico, which has enjoyed some of the most vociferous traveling support out of any team in this tournament, was again serenaded with songs all night. The fans also seemed to shout a chant that had spurred an investigation this week from FIFA with additional vigor, using it not only on opposing goal kicks but also on corner kicks, in the normal run of play and sometimes in seemingly random situations.
"Today we felt as if we were playing at home in Mexico," Herrera said.
And they truly did seem at ease. The only trembling legs belonged to Guardado as he completed his jubilant shimmy on the sideline.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service