MEXICO CITY -- As Cuauhtemoc Blanco led Mexico out and took the applause of an enraptured Estadio Azteca on Wednesday, it went almost unnoticed that there was another player with reason to celebrate. Andres Guardado became the tenth Mexican to win 100 caps for El Tri when he stepped onto the field against Israel. Yet he received sporadic whistles and boos from the crowd when the rare pass went astray, in stark contrast to the applause that accompanied Blanco's every touch.
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The irony is that "El Principito" has already achieved what the majority of El Tri's World Cup squad dream of, even if he is in somewhat of a career rut at present.
The diminutive 27-year-old from Guadalajara has played in top leagues in Europe and featured in two World Cups, something the likes of Marco Fabian, Miguel Layun, Isaac Brizuela and the other younger generation of Mexican players still have on their to-do list. Guardado's problem at present is one of identity.
He burst onto the scene at Atlas as a speedy winger, played as a left-wing back under Ricardo La Volpe with El Tri, then on the left of midfield in Spain and finally as a left back in his most recent matches for Bayer Leverkusen and before that at Valencia. It is obvious he is technically very good. He's quick, can pass and has vision, but no manager -- for club nor country -- seems to be able to work out his best position. On Wednesday evening, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera used Guardado in the holding midfield role in front of the back three, after Hector Herrera was left out due to a stomach complaint. "Guardado did quite well (in midfield) and is another option there for the team," said the coach after the game. Guardado was excellent on the ball, made decisive passes forward and was looking to inject speed into attacks. He moved into space to receive well, always providing an option for teammates. "Miguel spoke to me and asked if he I could play there," Guardado said on television after the game. "Obviously I said yes, but I've never played there and I tried to do as well as possible." He continued: "(I felt) good. Sometimes a little disorientated. It's the start of playing that position, which looks easy but isn't." But putting a player that isn't used to featuring in central midfield is a liability. Guardado, with his slight frame, isn't naturally defense-minded enough at present to fill the hole, at least if he is on his own against the attacking talent Brazil and Croatia possess in midfield. It was interesting reading comments on Twitter about Guardado's performance, with the official national team account naming him and Layun as the two options for man of the match and others decrying what an awful game he had. The truth was in-between, with plenty of positives being weighed down by those defensive question marks. If not in the holding role, the versatile Guardado could feature at left wing back or as an attacking midfielder, but his prospects in both look equally bleak at present. Left wing back Miguel Layun was voted man of the match against Israel, netting two goals and is a favorite of Herrera's. Guardado is very unlikely to surpass him between now and June 13, against Cameroon. Then in the forward midfield roles, Pena, Luis Montes, Herrera, Marco Fabian and Brizuela appear to be ahead of the former Atlas player. It seems Guardado will be on the outside of Mexico's starting XI this World Cup, despite being in his prime and having vastly more experience than anyone in the squad except Rafa Marquez and Carlos Salcido.