By Toby Davis
RECIFE Brazil (Reuters) - Like a bullish heavyweight squaring up to his opponent, Croatia coach Niko Kovac claimed Mexican knees should be knocking with fear ahead of their decisive World Cup clash on Monday.
The match in Recife will decide which of the Group A opponents lives to fight another day in the round of 16, with Mexico, who have four points from their opening two games, knowing a draw will enough to see them safely through.
Kovac's Croatia, a point behind, will almost certainly need to win, although a draw would suffice in the almost unthinkable scenario of already-eliminated Cameroon producing one of the biggest shocks of all time against hosts Brazil.
That could be construed as the very essence of sporting pressure, but Kovac, with Balkan ice running through his veins, was not going admit to feeling the strain.
"I believe they are under enough pressure already. You can compare our ambitions and goals and their ambitions and goals and then if anybody’s knees should tremble it should be theirs," he told a news conference on Sunday.
"The need to win might create pressure but we enjoy our football and we will realize our collective dreams.
"But we are also realistically optimistic, because we have players from top-notch clubs, if we cannot be optimistic now, when can we."
Croatia have not advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup since 1998, when they reached the semi-finals in their maiden appearance as an independent nation.
As a player, Kovac was sidelined for his country's greatest international success, but was involved in the World Cup four years later when they were sent packing in the group stage where they lost 1-0 to Monday's opponents.
A repeat of that result could be construed as failure, but in Kovac's eyes, this is an opportunity for his young squad to build for the future.
"It will not be a failure. I am not even thinking about that," he said. "We have done our best and prepared the team as well as we could.
"This is a young generation. We have several players from the Under-21s and Croatia has a pool of players to rely on for time to come. These lads can be together for five or six years and I hope it will be a good beginning for this team."
The game is being billed as a battle between Croatia's array of attacking talents, marked by the nimble creative probing of Luka Modric and the finishing prowess of Mario Mandzukic, and Mexico's goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Ochoa proved a one-man barricade in their 0-0 draw against Brazil, making two outstanding saves to deny Neymar, as well as stopping a thumping Thiago Silva header on the line.
In fact, Mexico have yet to let in a goal, having also beaten Cameroon 1-0 in their opening match.
"The fact that they have not conceded speaks volumes about their quality," said midfielder Modric, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid last season.
"There is a first time for everything. They had a great deal of luck and a great performance from their goalkeeper against Brazil. We will try and not let him get on top against us."
(Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Ken Ferris)