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 By Tom Marshall

Rafa Marquez defies critics to lead Mexico past Uruguay in Copa America

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has been asked on multiple occasions since taking over his current job about why he has chosen to back 37-year-old Rafa Marquez and keep him as a central piece of his plans, despite the defender's indifferent form in 2016 for club side Atlas.

On Sunday in the University of Phoenix Stadium, captain Marquez gave the answer on the field in Osorio's biggest challenge so far, with El Tri defeating Uruguay 3-1 in their Group C Copa America opener.

It's always easy to pick out a goalscorer as being an important element in a victory, but it wasn't just the way Marquez finished into the roof of the net to send 60,000 fans wild as Mexico took a giant step towards the three points; it wasn't even the exquisite cross-field pass onto Andres Guardado's toe to set up Mexico's first goal, even though both things were key moments in the match and in El Tri's victory.

Even without those two plays, Marquez is, was and will continue to be vital to Mexico's system and playing style under Osorio. The Colombian used a 3-4-3 diamond formation against Uruguay's 4-4-2, with Marquez the libero protected on either flank by Nestor Araujo and Hector Moreno and by Diego Reyes in front of him.

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When Mexico started to attack and play out from the back, Marquez was the focal point, sometimes going long -- like for the first goal -- and other times playing the ball short, just like a quarterback. In essence, Marquez is still the conductor of this Mexico side, someone who played for Barcelona, understands the overriding importance of having the ball and attacking and transmits all of that to everyone else.

"It is important, but as I transmit [authority and confidence] to [my teammates], they transmit it to me," said Marquez after the game. "It is a very complete squad mentally, physically and in all aspects and we're on the right track.

Defensively, especially in one-on-one situations, Marquez is going to struggle at his age and with his lack of pace, explaining why the coach wants others close to him. But Osorio has talked about how taking risks is part of his philosophy and the idea isn't to be on the back-foot, ever. While Osorio is coach, having a defender that has more vision than the vast majority of players, never mind defenders, is a major asset.

Assured of his place and leadership role, Marquez is also not afraid to speak his mind, criticizing his side for not controlling the game when Mexico had a player extra, but praising them for the way El Tri came back to win.

Mexico defender Rafa Marquez
Rafa Marquez was impressive in Mexico's attack and defence against Uruguay.

"We didn't take advantage of having an extra player, the consequence of which was they matched us in controlling the game," Marquez said. "When they scored the equalizer, they sat back and that gave us the chance to go forward and we took advantage with the goals."

After talking to the assembled media, Marquez stopped to chat and greet legends Alberto Garcias-Aspe and Jorge Campos before heading to the team coach. He's the one player in the Mexico squad that commands absolute respect from absolutely everyone in the federation, the coaching staff and the rest of the players. Marquez has an ice cold stare and you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him, but he commands authority.

Players refer to him "El Patron," which roughly translates as "the boss." He's become the go-between figure linking Osorio with the players and the coach is happy to lean on the experienced veteran. While to the outside world it may seem strange that Mexico is still reliant on Marquez, it has to be put in context. Marquez -- the only player to captain a side at four different World Cups -- is one of the two most successful players in El Tri's history and probably only behind only Hugo Sanchez in the all-time list of Mexican greats.

Marquez can't play on indefinitely, but while he is still around, Osorio plans to take advantage. And on Sunday's showing, it isn't difficult to see why.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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