By Luis Bueno, SI.com
Mexico starlet Giovani dos Santos provides the speed and skill to unlock any defense.
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile World Cup teams weekly. We continue with Mexico. Click here for the full archive.
Not many 37-year-old, second-division players feature for their national teams. But then again, Cuauhtemoc Blanco isn't just another player. Blanco is every bit as important to Mexico now as he was in 2002, when he was in his prime. With his unmatched vision, lethal set-piece ability and deft passing skills, the former Chicago Fire star is a difference-maker on offense, even if his aging legs don't allow him to move around as much anymore.
Giovani dos Santos, perhaps Mexico's best prospect ever, finally showed signs of life in '09. The best player in last summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, dos Santos was a key part of Mexico's qualifying campaign. With speed to burn, Gio's passing skills are as strong as his finishing skills. That he also has the ability to draw penalties is another part of his game opponents cannot overlook.
A virtual unknown in '06, Andres Guardado forced then manager Ricardo Lavolpe's hand and earned some playing time in Germany despite not having participated at all during qualifying. Now 23 and one of the team's key scoring threats, Guardado will be counted on to provide dangerous runs and service from the left side.
What to watch for
In the last four World Cups, Mexico has shown up to play. El Tri has a 5-2-5 record in the group stage since '94 and has reached the second round in every tournament. But the most alarming statistic is this: Mexico is 0-4 in knockout games (0-3-1 with a penalty-kick loss, to be specific). What has been the difference for Mexico once it gets out of the group stage? In order for El Tri to even attempt to figure out that answer this summer, the squad will have to play with the same tenacity and focus it has shown in each group stage, and then take that further if it plays a fourth game in South Africa.
Key match in group stage
June 11 vs. South Africa. A win in the highly anticipated 2010 World Cup opener against the hosts could give El Tri momentum, aside from a valuable three points. A loss, particularly a bad one, could sink it.
Celebrity scouting report: Juan Manuel Marquez*
The group is very difficult; however I believe the team is very strong in all departments, but first they should defeat South Africa. I see Mexico passing [through] this first round. ... Cuauhtemoc Blanco is the head and heart of the team. He changes the mentality. Guillermo Ochoa and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez are the other ones. Even though I hate Chivas of Guadalajara, I like Hernandez. ... Players I enjoy watching the most include Blanco, Ochoa, and Zinha, who is supposed to be there. Nery Castillo as well. ... Javier Aguirre is the right coach for the squad. He had a great career in Spain and he knows very well the Mexican players in Europe. They do have the firepower to match the elite teams. The squad has the quality, but they have to bring out their character to the field. They have to be as strong physically and mentally as Spain and England, countries that bring everything to the field. They have to play freely without thinking of an injury. Mexico has to bring this great character in order to succeed. ... When the squad started poorly in qualifying under Sven-Goran Eriksson, there was no connection between the players and coach. Aguirre brought [in] instrumental players and that's what the difference. After all they got the ticket to South Africa. ... The group is very difficult because they face the host South Africa in the first game. South Africa will play with everything, but Mexico has to bring out its character and play as never before. This is a key game. ... I believe Mexico has the chance to win the World Cup. It is difficult, but not impossible. I see Mexico in the semifinals and why not playing the grand final?
*The current WBA and WBO Lightweight world champion is from Mexico City, Mexico. As told to Bryan Armen Graham.