Tom Marshall: King Vela reigns in Basque derby

Despite not getting on the scoresheet, Carlos Vela was given a standing ovation in his team's 2-0 derby win over Athletic Bilbao.
It may have been one day before “El Día de los Reyes” (Three Kings’ Day) in Mexico, but one Cancun native lapped up the adoration of the masses many miles away, across the Atlantic inside the Anoeta stadium.

Ostracized from the national team set-up and dividing opinion among Mexico fans, some of whom can’t forgive the fact he has refused call ups to El Tri, Carlos Vela left the field in the 86th minute of Real Sociedad’s 2-0 victory in the Basque derby against Athletic Bilbao to a standing ovation.

The player - who wears the regal “Carlos V” on the back of his shirt - has become to Real Sociedad what Lionel Messi is to Barcelona, reinforced by the cries of “Ve-la, Ve-la” ringing out as he was substituted.

Vela didn’t score on Sunday. He didn’t even play a vital part in Antoine Griezmann’s opener and was off the field when Ruben Pardo sowed up the game late. But he did give a selfless display, tracking back, tackling and providing the focal point of danger for Real going forward. The fans and his teammates appreciated his fine attitude in one of the club’s most important games of the season.

It was a welcome and concise reminder right at the start of 2014 that El Tri can ill-afford not count on a player who was Mexico’s best in 2013 by a landslide, and shows continuing signs that he is maturing and still improving.

There will be much debate from now to the World Cup about how Mexico will do in Brazil, but the importance of coach Miguel Herrera’s planned trip to Europe in February to work out the Vela situation cannot be underestimated.

“If Carlos shows that conviction and that football he plays with in Real Sociedad, without doubt he will be an important player (for the national team),” Herrera told ESPN ahead of the New Year.

Herrera – like anyone who watches him – realizes what Vela brings, but the Mexico manager also said there would not be any concessions or preferential treatment with regards to the 24-year-old.

Mexico fans await the final decision with bated breath.

Elsewhere in Europe, Hector Moreno played at the heart of the Espanyol defense in its 1-0 defeat away against Osasuna. Despite the loss, the club sits in 10th place in La Liga and former El Tri manager Javier Aguirre is working a minor miracle considering the financial constraints he has been under.

Valencia’s Andres Guardado has a new coach in Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi, but only came on for the last 16 minutes of the manager’s debut – a 2-0 win over Levante - meaning he has work to do this year to get playing regularly again to win a spot back with El Tri.

There was better news in terms of playing time for Javier Hernandez, who netted his first goal for club or country since late October, although it wasn’t enough to stop Manchester United crashing out of the FA Cup 2-1 to Swansea on Sunday.

Guillermo Ochoa warmed up for next Saturday’s clash against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Paris Saint Germain with a 2-1 win over Quimperle in the French cup, but with just one league win all season, it could be a busy day against the Ligue 1 leaders for the former America ‘keeper.