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Jun 28, 2014

Mexico hope to slay round of 16 dragon

FORTALEZA, Brazil -- Once again, Mexico is facing the dragon that is the World Cup round of 16.

On the past five occasions, El Tri has stood at this very spot. All five times, Mexico has succumbed. Now Miguel Herrera's side is faced with the same challenge -- this time against a Netherlands side that laid waste to Group B.

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Match 51
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It's gotten to the point that trying to pick out the most depressing chapter in El Tri's round of 16 history is like trying to recall the most painful root canal. They've all hurt in their own unique way.

Back in 1994, there was the penalty shootout loss to Bulgaria. Four years later, Mexico was beating Germany 1-0 deep into the second half, only to cough up two goals in the final 15 minutes and fall 2-1.

In 2002 came abject humiliation, as bitter rivals the United States prevailed 2-0 -- one of many "dos a cero" triumphs the Yanks have inflicted on their southern neighbors.

In 2006 came an extra-time defeat to Argentina thanks to a wonder strike by Maxi Rodriguez. Four years ago, the Albiceleste needed no extra exertion, racing out to a 3-0 lead before winning 3-1.

As Herrera pondered the string of defeats, he quickly focused on the 2006 tournament as one where El Tri deserved better.

"In 2006, Mexico was far superior to Argentina," he said at his prematch news conference. "We deserved it more, but unfortunately, we did not score goals, and Maxi [Rodriguez] ended up scoring one of those goals that you see once in a lifetime during a World Cup. So unfortunately, Mexico left without attaining the target of moving on to the next match."

Miguel Herrera singled out 2006, when El Tri led Argentina late, as Mexico's most difficult round of 16 defeat.

And the others?

"Maybe ideas were missing: another set piece, taking the opponent by surprise, the attitude," he said with the help of an interpreter. "We can say many things that we saw as fans with the national team."

But Herrera sounded nothing like a haunted man as he discussed his team's chances against the Dutch. His side has already stared down the prospect of facing hosts Brazil and come through with a credible 0-0 draw. El Tri defended well throughout almost all of the group stage, and when it didn't, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was there to rescue his side. Even Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez has rediscovered his scoring touch and tallied in the final group stage match against Croatia. Instead of fearing the past, Herrera is insisting El Tri embrace the future. And the pressure.

"It seems to me that this is one of those wonderful pressures," he said of Sunday's match. "You have to enjoy it, go through it, live it and enjoy it if we achieve it."

It all points to the confidence, positivity and unity Herrera has instilled into a side that looked utterly broken at the conclusion of the CONCACAF portion of World Cup qualifying. And it has gotten Herrera noticed with plaudits from Brazil manager Felipe Scolari and Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal -- not that Herrera is about to let any compliments go to his head.

"Van Gaal has a way of being, a style of coaching that is giving him good results," he said. "I have my own that has given me good results. The screams on the bench, everything that we live, what we have on the bench with the boys. That is why the boys have that attitude, the running, the fighting, the will to do things. Each coach handles things differently. But for me it is a pleasure and an honor to be able to face the players and the bench of such a successful coach as Van Gaal."

So can Mexico win? It certainly has the technical ability to do so, and it finds itself in as good a moment, psychologically, as at any time this cycle. The Netherlands certainly provide impressive opposition, but Mexico has gone toe-to-toe with talented sides in the past. Herrera is of the belief that the opportunity is there for his side to prevail.

"We will give our all," he said. "The attitude and determination is essential with this team and is part of our essence. If you have that essence, you cannot change it or lose it when you are faced with the most important moment."

All that's left now is to slay the dragon.