It almost seemed like Mexico manager Tata Martino was apologizing for calling in Hirving Lozano for these games. In his news conferences after a 5-1 win against Bermuda and before Tuesday's eventual 3-1 victory over Panama, he pointed out that a few weeks ago Lozano was playing teams with big names like Juventus and Liverpool. Now he was playing teams with few recognizable stars.
Yet there he was, starting for a second consecutive match. This time Lozano played as a forward in a somewhat experimental position, though it didn't differ wildly from where Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti has played the 24-year-old against those lauded opponents.
There's not much need to apologize for Martino, however. Lozano wants to represent his national team. Martino's call-ups aren't optional, per se, but the absence of a player like Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez shows that they're negotiable. Lozano, however, was there even for interim Mexico coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti after the 2018 World Cup when the team lacked direction and the benefits of coming into camp were few.
The risks? Those are obvious. Lozano was the most fouled player in Liga MX when he played with Pachuca and continued to be a target in the Eredivisie and even the Champions League. He takes a fair amount of abuse, and the potential for injury is high. So it was wince-inducing to see him signal for a substitution and leave on a stretcher in the 66th minute of Tuesday's triumph.
Martino wasn't frustrated with Panama center back FIdel Escober, whose brusque contact with Lozano's ankle looked to cause the injury, or with his own choice to bring Lozano in for the matches, but rather the referee, who he felt failed to protect Lozano from repeated abuse.
"They’re things that happen. When sometimes you in the press ask how much does it help him to come in," Martino told TUDN after the contest. "And it’s true. When those things happen you can ask, 'Why? Why?' But it’s not the opponent’s fault or ours, the responsibility is that of the referees, who I insist have to impart justice."
Simply put, Lozano is the best Mexican player right now. Raul Jimenez has a case as well, but Lozano proved Tuesday that he's plug and play. Even during his time at Pachuca, Lozano could play as a forward but made his living as a winger.
Lozano worked well as a forward on Tuesday, dropping in to fight for the ball and keeping things circulating to his fellow attackers Rodolfo Pizarro and Roberto Alvarado.
"I really liked the team in the first 38-40 minutes," Martino said. "I think we played a really good game, passed well."
Even so, Lozano will be back on the wing in the future, with Martino able to count on Jimenez, Chicharito and emerging star Jose Juan Macias to play the central forward role in his 4-3-3. Now he knows, however, that putting Lozano in as the most advanced man is an option going forward. Should Mexico need to make modifications or not have players available for the role, Lozano can do that job too.
Where is he at his best? You'd have to say still on the wing, but Lozano is a smart enough player who puts in strong enough efforts that Martino can essentially play him where he likes and trust him to accomplish the task.
Martino may have realized he needs players like Lozano and Atletico Madrid midfielder Hector Herrera in a tournament like the Nations League. A day after saying the first game against Bermuda felt almost like "a return to amateurism" El Tri had some nervous moments in Martino's debut match at the Azteca.
"We could’ve been down 2-1 at one point, but we ended up winning convincingly because we associated well on the second goal, Jose had a really great finish, a quick reception and shot," Martino said. "Then we found a third with pressure. On the one side I’m worried about the second half, on the other, I really liked almost all the first half."
He also will have liked everything he saw from Lozano, a versatile attacker who, when fit, can harm teams no matter where he lines up.