If Wednesday night's match against New Zealand was a true preview of what to expect from Mexico in the Gold Cup, then the rest of CONCACAF has been put on notice. In their final pre-tournament tune-up, Mexico fired a warning shot over the bow of their Gold Cup competition with a virtuoso first half performance against the All Whites. Playing without star striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Mexico dominated play against New Zealand, jumping out to a 3-0 lead behind two goals from Giovani Dos Santos and one from Aldo De Nigris. It was an incredible overall performance, especially from Dos Santos, who was inundated with accolades following the match. Somewhat lost in all of the (much deserved) praise for Dos Santos, though, was the brilliance of midfielder Pablo Barrera.
Absolutely dominating play on the right wing, Barrera was the source of most of Mexico's action going forward in the first half. Nearly all of Mexico’s offensive pressure in the early going was funneling through the right side of the field. Barrera helped control possession, and played several nice balls into the box, leading to narrow misses from both De Nigris and Dos Santos. Barrera’s brilliance finally paid off on Mexico’s second goal of the game. Taking the ball at midfield, Barrera pushed down the right side and drew two New Zealand defenders just outside of the penalty area. Keeping command of the ball while under pressure, he then dumped a pass off to a wide-open Gerardo Torrado, who sent the ball to Dos Santos for the goal. He doesn’t appear anywhere on the scoresheet on the play, but Barrera’s work is what helped set up the scoring opportunity.
Barrera's spot on the right wing is one of the keys to Mexico's 4-2-3-1 formation. The strength of the three players behind the striker will likely dictate how dominant Mexico can be in this year’s Gold Cup. With Andres Guardado on the left, and Dos Santos now likely stepping in permanently for Sinha in the middle, it becomes an incredibly dynamic and talented unit. The trio should create all kinds of match-up problems for the rest of the CONCACAF teams. Barrera, Guardado, and Dos Santos were all brilliant in the first half against New Zealand, showing why they are the best three choices for these creative roles.
On Sunday evening, the 2011 Gold Cup officially kicks off with a double header at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The opening match, Costa Rica vs. Cuba, is followed by Mexico vs. El Salvador. While Mexico are clearly the better squad, El Salvador are not a team that can be overlooked. Los Cuscatlecos showed some heart last Sunday, coming back from two goals down to earn a draw versus Honduras in a pre-tournament friendly. To get the same result against Mexico, one important factor will be limiting Barrera’s control of the ball on the right wing.
In his relatively short international career, Barrera has traditionally played very well against CONCACAF competition. Two years ago, he scored in Mexico's Gold Cup opener, a 2-0 win over Nicaragua. In the 2009 Gold Cup he also scored in the quarterfinal win over Haiti, which happened to be the second ever sporting event held in Cowboys Stadium (following Costa Rica's win over Guadeloupe earlier that same day). On Sunday, Barrera returns with El Tri to Cowboys Stadium, looking to recreate the magic from that 2009 championship run.
It was almost exactly a year ago that Barrera made the move from Pumas UNAM to the English Premier League. Unfortunately, he was never able to reach his full potential playing for a West Ham team that ended up relegated at the end of the season. In recent days the talk has been a possible move to Real Zaragoza in Spain for next season, where former Mexico national team manager Javier Aguirre has expressed serious interest in acquiring Barrera. While the club situation for next season remains – at least temporarily – unsettled, Barrera has repeatedly stated that his current focus is 100 percent on the national team. That's a good thing, as continued impressive performances during the Gold Cup over the coming weeks will only further raise his international profile.