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 By Tom Marshall

Mexico's unsung hero Moreno set for Van Gaal reunion

A roller-coaster ride of twists, turns, ups and downs characterizes the plight of many Mexican players who move to Europe early in their careers, accompanied by the appropriate exaggerated response from the press back home.

But that is not the case with Hector Moreno. The center-back rarely seeks or receives headlines, yet he remains the shining example of his generation of a Mexican player leaving for Europe at an early age, excelling consistently, and becoming a rock for the national team.

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And on Sunday, when Mexico take on the Netherlands in Fortaleza, Moreno will be reacquainted with Louis van Gaal, the manager who played a significant role in Moreno's development. The former Ajax coach signed Moreno to Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar in December 2007, when the Mexican was only 19.

"It's nice; he is someone for whom I have a lot of appreciation because he opened the doors to Europe for me," Moreno told reporters after Mexico's 3-1 win over Croatia on Monday. "He helped me a lot."

Moreno expects to greet Van Gaal ahead of the game and to "commiserate him" afterward following a victory for El Tri, but the 26-year-old Espanyol player has been consistently positive when asked about working under tactician Van Gaal. Moreno has said the manager has "a very clear idea of football," and transmits that to the players, especially the younger ones.

The Dutchman is once again using that formula with his Netherlands team that blends a core of youth with experienced stars like Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Nigel de Jong.

A top performance versus the Netherlands could be the catalyst for a move to a Champions League club for Mexico center back Hector Moreno.
A top performance versus the Netherlands could be the catalyst for a move to a Champions League club for Mexico center back Hector Moreno.

"They are youngsters, like me, that were starting out when I was there [in the Netherlands from 2008 to June 2011], that have grown and become known under Van Gaal, who supports youngsters a lot," added Moreno.

Since the Culiacan, Sinaloa, native is entering his prime and is on the market, and since Van Gaal is taking over the Manchester United hot seat and the club will likely look for a center-back or two with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic leaving, it isn't too difficult to put two and two together. And the rumors placing Moreno with a move to Manchester United have flowed.

What is becoming abundantly clear is that after Moreno's stint at AZ Alkmaar, followed by three seasons in La Liga with Espanyol, Moreno is ready to step up to another level in his club career and play Champions League football regularly.

It is no surprise that Moreno, who speaks good English, is attracting interest from the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur -- where his former coach at Espanyol, Mauricio Pochettino, is currently in charge -- and other top clubs from Europe's best leagues.

Moreno isn't spectacular as a defender, but he is very steady, reads the game with aplomb and is good on the ball. Off the field, he appears to be bright, stable in his family life, and good at handling the press. He was probably the best Europe-based player for Mexico during the tough qualification El Tri went through.

So far, Moreno has shown his quality at Brazil 2014, even if it hasn't been easy to adapt from the flat-back four he has played under Javier Aguirre in Espanyol to Miguel Herrera's 5-3-2 system.

Before the World Cup, the left-footed Moreno spoke of the difficulties of adapting to Herrera's three center-back system, the freedom it allows to step up, and the necessity of covering the flanks. But in each of the three games Mexico has played so far at Brazil, the understanding has gotten better and Moreno has grown into the tournament, putting in a top-quality display against Croatia, capped off with a goal-saving clearance late in the game.

Early in his career, Moreno was compared to current Mexico captain Rafael Marquez. Moreno reveres his teammate and has sought to emulate his career path, with only the big move to a European giant missing, as Marquez managed when he went from Monaco to Barcelona.

On Sunday, Moreno will be charged with stopping the fearsome Dutch threesome of Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder and a side that has scored 10 goals in three games in this World Cup.

The affable Moreno has plugged away with consistently good performances for most of his career, winning a title under Van Gaal with AZ and shining in Spain. Sunday's game offers him the chance to prove he is more than a decent player and is worthy of a massive club move -- and, of course, to help El Tri to a historic quarterfinal place at the expense of his former manager.

Tom Marshall

Tom Marshall has been based in Guadalajara since 2008 and has specialized in writing about Mexican football ever since. As well as contributing to ESPN Insider's Mexico national team blog (@ESPNtri), he co-hosts The Mexican Soccer Show podcast and can be found on Twitter @MexicoWorldCup.