In Spain’s top flight, the sterling performances of Mexican internationals Héctor Herrera and Néstor Araujo in crucial matches for their clubs did not fill the same amount of column inches but is still welcome news for fans of El Tri.
On his first start since January 23rd, Hector Herrera was instrumental in Atlético Madrid’s 5-0 win at Osasuna. His precise through ball into the left channel for left-back Renan Lodi split the home defense and facilitated the all-important opening goal in the 27th minute. In the second half, “HH” collected his second assist of the season after his short free-kick into the feet of Marcos Llorente was finished with aplomb by the young midfielder.
These impressive showings come at the perfect time for Herrera. The former Pachuca star struggled to establish himself in the Atlético starting 11 for much of the season after securing a free transfer from Porto last summer. Furthermore, a left adductor injury kept Herrera out of the team through a crucial stretch of matches in February, causing him to fall further down the midfield pecking order.
In the context of the fierce competition for places in the Atlético engine room and with his fight to return to full fitness. The suspension of league play for the COVID-19 pandemic came at the perfect time for Herrera. With Atlético mired in a fierce battle for 4th place, manager Diego Simeone must rotate his squad as they face a crowded fixture list in the coming weeks. As a result, Herrera will have ample opportunity to demonstrate his worth and make a starting spot his own before Atleti contest the Champions League Quarterfinals in late August.
At the other end of the table, Araujo’s Celta Vigo side traveled to Valladolid in a massive relegation six-pointer. The defender went the whole 90 minutes in the 0-0 draw against Los Pucelanos, with talismanic striker Iago Aspas missing a second-half penalty for the visitors that would have seen them take a huge step towards safety. Celta currently sits only one point above the drop zone, with a game in hand on 18th-placed Mallorca.
Despite their lowly league position, Araujo has been the cornerstone of a much-improved Celta defense this season. The Galicia-based club shipped 62 goals in 38 league matches last campaign, but have allowed only 35 in 29 games this time around. The January purchase of Colombian center-back Jeison Murillo further strengthened a rearguard that has let in only 6 goals in the last 10 matches. Araujo has showcased his versatility during this stretch, proving effective in a partnership with Murillo or on the left side of a three-man defense.
Despite their encouraging displays in Spain, Herrera and Araujo were not even the main soccer story in their home country this week. They were overshadowed by the escalating feud between Napoli manager Gennaro Gattuso and club-record signing Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, who was kicked out of team practice on Monday and did not make it off the bench in the Coppa Italia Final against Juventus two days later.
Lozano is one of Mexico’s most dangerous attackers, and his club situation creates a headache for National Team manager Gerardo Martino. Nevertheless, the form of Herrera and Araujo solves potential problems in midfield and defense for Mexican National Coach “Tata” Martino.
At last summer’s Gold Cup, Araujo sat on the bench for the semifinal and final behind Héctor Moreno and Carlos Salcedo, who started together in the heart of the defense. Since then, however, the stock of Moreno and Salcedo has fallen considerably. Moreno turned 32 in January and moved from Real Sociedad to the less competitive Qatari league with Al-Gharafa last summer. Salcedo, meanwhile, has struggled for Tigres in recent months, with his errors playing a key role in their elimination from the Apertura 2019 Liguilla to América. After almost two years as a starter with Celta, Araujo seems ready to lead Mexico’s backline.
In midfield, Herrera can play as a “number 6” or eventually replace the aging Andrés Guardado further forward. Playing Herrera deep in midfield also gives Martino the option of pushing Ajax youngster Edson Álvarez to center-back, where he could create a promising partnership with Araujo. Regardless of how Martino decides to align his team, Herrera and Araujo will be key components if they continue to play like they did this week.