Giovani dos Santos still facing fight for place despite 100-cap milestone
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Giovani dos Santos completed 100 games with the Mexico national team on Tuesday evening in Costa Rica with relatively minimal fanfare.
The 28-year-old spoke briefly to the TV cameras after the hard fought 1-1 tie against Los Ticos in World Cup qualifying, but scurried past the rest of the media and onto the team bus.
It wasn't the way a player usually marks the exceptional achievement of reaching 100 caps for a national team. There were no statements on how pleased he was; no reflection on the huge effort he's put into the national team through the years -- the highs of the early years at the 2005 Under-17 World Cup, the difficult times after Miguel Herrera was fired, and onto the present.
Perhaps he simply didn't feel like talking much, leaving brother Jonathan dos Santos to step in to sum up his achievement.
"He's getting old!" joked the younger Dos Santos brother and Giovani's LA Galaxy teammate. "I'm very happy for him because it is very difficult to achieve it. Since he was young he's been in the national team, he's done a lot and continues to do so. He played a great game today."
Few players manage to reach the milestone of 100 games for a major national team. Fewer still do so 18 months away from their 30th birthday. Dos Santos is now 12th in the all-time list of Mexico appearances and the forward will soon be on the coat tails of bona fide El Tri legends like Alberto Garcia-Aspe, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Ramon Ramirez.
Yet the occasion didn't seem to be marked with much hype. When Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez completes 100 caps this year, or early next, you can bet that event will be celebrated by media outlets going into overdrive with Hernandez-related content.
Maybe Dos Santos' big occasion was overshadowed because the game was played away; perhaps it was the fact that Mexico drew. But most likely it is down to the slightly awkward position Dos Santos holds at present with the national team.
The Mexican federation press release stated Dos Santos had a "brilliant night" against Costa Rica. It was slightly exaggerated; almost forced.
Dos Santos' issue with Mexico right now is twofold. The first is that of position. Arguably, Dos Santos' best role is floating behind a central striker, being given freedom to roam, find space and be the focal point of the team's attack.
Dos Santos did it fairly well in El Tri's first Hexagonal game away in Columbus, Ohio against the United States. That night he was an important part of Mexico making history in claiming a 2-1 win.
It highlighted that although coach Juan Carlos Osorio has previously overlooked Dos Santos -- most notably at the Copa America Centenario -- the Colombian does rate him. And the player's versatility is a major plus, with Dos Santos able to feature as a left-sided central midfielder, on either wing, or behind a main striker.
The second issue for Dos Santos at present is competition, especially for the wing positions. Hirving Lozano impressed again for El Tri on the opposite flank to Dos Santos, ripping into the Costa Rican defense, which had little option at times than to hack him down.
Then there is Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Carlos Vela, who replaced his friend Dos Santos in the 72nd minute. On the bench remained Javier Hernandez, Javier Aquino and Jurgen Damm, all of whom have been used on the wing by Osorio, as has Raul Jimenez. On top of them, Marco Fabian is also due back from injury for next year.
Dos Santos was by no means poor against Los Ticos and is still a valuable asset. He was key in Mexico's opening goal, steering a Jimenez cross towards goal for Costa Rica keeper Keylor Navas to make a fine save, only for the ball to rebound in off Cristian Gamboa.
Dos Santos started the game on the right wing, cutting in onto his left foot, but it wasn't long before he was swapped onto the other flank. It's difficult to overly criticize his display, but the young duo of Jimenez and Lozano outshone Dos Santos, who was the obvious candidate to be substituted off.
While there is a plausible theory that Dos Santos should be sitting on 100 caps absolutely sure of his role in the team, he's perhaps now more seen as a utility player. There is little sense that he is a leader for El Tri, a certain starter and he arguably isn't even guaranteed a spot at Russia 2018.
Dos Santos' mission now has to be to return to Galaxy, rediscover his magic with a struggling team and keep proving himself worthy of minutes with El Tri. All in all, it's a strange situation for such an experienced and talented player to be in having reached a major milestone.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.