Having returned to training Tuesday, Villarreal forward Gio dos Santos is in contention to make his 100th La Liga appearance against Malaga on Monday.
Not bad for a 24-year-old widely viewed as having wasted the best part of four years of his career in England.
Dos Santos’ return to fitness will not only prove timely for Villarreal as it vies with Real Sociedad for Europa League qualification, it will also provide El Tri with a timely boost as the World Cup nears.
The excellent Carlos Vela’s self-imposed exile and Javier Hernandez’s lack of form and playing time at Manchester United mean dos Santos will be the most important of the Europe-based forwards at the disposal of Mexico Coach Miguel Herrera in Brazil.
But if he is to help Mexico progress beyond the group stage then dos Santos must step up, leave his mark on every game and display a level of consistency that has often eluded him throughout his career.
Having joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at the age of 11, dos Santos was once touted as the next Ronaldinho. His considerable talent was evident from a very young age, but he has only shown tantalizing glimpses of it throughout his career.
In 2005 dos Santos was instrumental in Mexico’s Under-17 World Cup triumph, assisting half of his team’s 16 goals in the competition.
He celebrated his 19th birthday by netting a hat trick for Barcelona just days later, and in the 2010 World Cup he was voted runner-up to Germany’s Thomas Müller as FIFA Young Player of the Tournament.
Dos Santos’ finest moment was undoubtedly scoring that wonder goal against the USA in the 2011 Gold Cup final, and he also played a key role in El Tri’s gold medal-winning campaign in the London 2012 Olympic Games, despite missing the
final with an injury.
Yet every step forward seems to have preceded two steps back. Dos Santos’ promising debut campaign at Barcelona was followed by a disastrous spell at Tottenham Hotspur, where he scored just twice in 30 appearances over the course of four seasons and was loaned out to three different clubs amid concerns about his professionalism.
Returning to Spain has restored some momentum to his career. With six goals and seven assists, dos Santos was Mallorca’s top scorer last season. Although this was not enough to stave off relegation, it did earn him a move to promoted side Villarreal.
Finally established at a stable club that is willing and able to play to his strengths, dos Santos has 10 goals and seven assists in 26 appearances, making this the most productive and consistent season of his career to date.
This bodes well for Mexico. Dos Santos is arguably the nation’s most naturally gifted footballer and unlocking his potential could prove vital to El Tri’s World Cup chances.
Dos Santos has yet to appear under Herrera because of injury and has not starred for his country since that dismal 2-1 defeat to Costa Rica last October, but if he can prove his fitness over the final weeks of the season then he should reclaim his spot in Mexico’s first eleven.
Although he did not perform well during El Tri’s World Cup qualification campaign, the same argument could be leveled against almost every squad member. The greater concern for dos Santos is where exactly he fits into Herrera’s plans.
Herrera has publicly stated that he prefers to play two strikers rather than an enganche, or number 10, one of dos Santos’ preferred positions. But having been deployed as a more orthodox striker at Villarreal this season, while still given license to drift wide and link play, dos Santos should be able to slot in up front for Mexico. If Herrera uses him as a second striker playing off Oribe Peralta then he will have a forward line capable of causing problems against even the toughest opponents.
Recent news reports in Mexico have speculated that Herrera might yet call up Marco Fabian at dos Santos’ expense. This would be a risky move. Although both have that rare ability to beat players and create chances from nothing, dos Santos also has crucial experience of playing against elite European teams that Fabian lacks.
If he can regain his fitness, maintain his newfound consistency and play to his potential, then dos Santos can be Mexico’s key players at the World Cup.
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