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 By Nayib Moran

Andres Guardado ready to step to forefront as Mexico's leader

With Rafa Marquez out of the picture at the moment, Andres Guardado has become the leader for Mexico.

MEXICO CITY -- At almost 31 years old, Andres Guardado is experiencing one of the most important moments of his career, where his leaderships qualities will have to shine through every week at club and national team level. Heading toward a fourth World Cup, Guardado feels that the World Cup in Russia will be the place where everything will finally come together -- all the experiences he's attained in Europe and in past World Cups -- and help him give his best World Cup performance of his career. 

The experiences, both good and bad, have transformed him from a speedy left-footed winger into a midfield orchestrator, capable of playing in all midfield positions. Without the presence of Rafael Marquez in the national team picture, Guardado becomes El Tri's most important voice.

After three successful years at PSV, where he was able to closely learn about the midfield craft from someone like Phillip Cocu, Guardado has landed at Real Betis, where manager Quique Setien has high ambitions of making Betis into one of the most competitive sides in La Liga. Guardado's decision to head to Betis should be interpreted as one that he took in order to enhance his football a year before the World Cup. In Mexico's No. 18's world, there's always time to keep improving. 

"To tell you the truth, you don't see it coming when you're one of the new players in the team," Guardado began to explain on Real Betis TV's show, Heliopolis, what he thought of becoming a team captain although he's a new player in the team. "El Mister asked me about it and explained to me why he decided to designate me captain. I told him, 'Mister, no matter if I'm captain or not, I will always give my all and show what I have learned thanks to the experiences this career has given me.'

"So at the end, it's a designation, but I carry it with a lot responsibility and excitement."

In Betis' 2-1 win over Celta Vigo last Friday, Guardado got both assists, but it wasn't the assists that stood out. What stood out was how closely his teammates listened to him in the tunnel at half-time as he gave specific instructions to the forwards and midfielders. 

When it comes to Mexican footballers in Europe, the number isn't vast. So it's easy to pinpoint those who have captain-like qualities and those who don't. Certainly, having played in Europe for 10 years has shaped Guardado into the leader that he is today. Not that many Mexican footballers have been able to be immersed in European football for a decade.

By deciding to sign with Betis, Guardado claimed right to two important opportunities: To compete against the best, and to prove that he can be among the best.

Andres Guardado's decision to sign with Betis shows he is still challenging himself at the highest level.

"When you go against Barcelona, you notice it a lot [the difference between La Liga and the Eredivisie]," Guardado said on Heliopolis. "In general, that's why I came back, I said it during my presentation. It's not the same to play each week against teams of the caliber of Barcelona, than, with all due respect, against Eredivisie teams.

"I came looking for this competition, which has a greater level and asks more from you. Without a doubt, it will make me have a better playing level."

As acting Mexico captain, Guardado already spoke with the Mexican press as El Tri prepares to face Panama and secure a place in next year's World Cup. The best statement that he made was the following: "It's not simple [completing the World Cup qualifiers in the fashion El Tri has done]. We have to give it the worth that it deserves because we weren't able to do it in the last two World Cup qualifiers."

His first two games in Spain suggest that Guardado is living one of the most exciting times of his career. In an interview with Sevilla's sports newspaper, Estadio Deportivo, he stated that he has more excitement now, than when he was 20-years-old and playing for Deportivo La Coruna.

The upcoming World Cup could be the last one of Guardado in his prime. "You never know but maybe at this level and with an important responsibility in the team, I think that this could be the last one [World Cup]," he stated on Heliopolis. "That's why I decided to come to a league like this one and to accept this exciting challenge [at Betis], which demands me to give my all and will help me reach next year's World Cup at a great level." 

Not only will he be reaching next year's World Cup at a great level, but possibly as Mexico's most important leader in the final roster.

Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.

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