There is no more divisive player on the Mexico roster than Giovani dos Santos.
Everyone will agree he has talent, but even his biggest fans will admit that talent isn't always on display while his detractors have to concede that he has influenced matches in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Now it's El Tri manager Juan Carlos Osorio's job to figure out which is more likely to happen this summer – for Dos Santos to show his talent and be player who needs to be on the Mexico roster for Russia or someone who won't be able to rediscover his form and is better off left at home.
"Giovani is a unique case," Osorio said Friday. "All Mexicans, and I’ll include myself, have always hoped, like I hope, that Giovani might be a player who not only is influential in the game but also on the scoreboard like he was against the Netherlands in the last World Cup.
"Now, I think the expectations are very different from the current reality, and the only thing I can hope at this time is that he’s 100 percent and competes with a place on the final list like everyone else. We’ll look at him from now until the weekend."
That hardly was a ringing endorsement from the manager, who just months ago had lavished praise upon Dos Santos. Stranger still, there are reports (aren't there always reports?) that Osorio was frustrated at Dos Santos for not following along with the fitness plan sent to him in the fall after Mexico clinched World Cup qualification. If that's true, Osorio's comments in January seem like hilarious subtweeting more than legit praise. At the time, though, they felt genuine.
"Our three players Jonathan, Carlos and Giovani, they look really good. Giovani especially, I think you’ll see, like I said last week when I was in LA, that he’s been working and he may be in the best shape of his life," Osorio said before a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Feb. 1.
To me and other members of the press, Dos Santos failed to impress in the 1-0 victory. Osorio, however, felt it was another step in the right direction for the 29-year-old. "About Giovani, I totally disagree with you," the manager said. "I think he keeps showing that he’s a player capable of being on the the ball, can go from the outside and to the interior and speaking with him these are two positions where he feels comfortable.
"Today we decided to play him as a winger on his natural side behind a single forward. I think he looked good when he played inverted. I think he’s definitely a player who, from what we’ve seen, is going to keep preparing himself in the best way and he’s going to be in top condition to fight for a place against anybody."
Those preparations were derailed, though, by a hamstring injury suffered with the LA Galaxy against NYCFC that kept him out of the March friendly matches. After a brief return to the field, Dos Santos again had to miss time and entered last weekend unable to go a full 90 minutes with club or country.
He did see the field against Wales and Osorio's outlook after seeing Dos Santos for 20 minutes on Monday was far more positive than the comments about expectations differing from reality he'd made days earlier.
"I think we all know his ability, his technique, and in a very tight space, he can be a very influential player," he said. "He touched the ball I don't know how many times within only 15 or 20 minutes. We hope against Scotland he'll have more time. Hopefully he starts and he shows everything we expect from him."
Osorio is only the latest manager who has oscillated when discussing Dos Santos. Between inconsistency and injury, Dos Santos can drive a coach mad. One night, he's the best player on the field by far, the next all the skill and incisiveness he showed has vanished. Previous national team managers and club managers have had to figure out where to put Dos Santos, a jack of many trades but perhaps not a master of one specific skill. Even Osorio, who loves to try players out in different roles and often notes a tendency in a player that convinces him to make a change, says he doesn't have the answer.
"It's not where I see him, it's where he sees himself," Osorio said after the Wales game. "He sees himself and where we agree he can play, first off as an attacking midfielder, behind the 9 then on the interior and/or as a right winger with an inverted profile."
Many fans don't see Gio playing any of those positions at the World Cup. Once the great hope of the team, and indeed a regular who played nearly 70 percent of Mexico's matches in the 2014 cycle, he has fallen out of regular status playing in just more than two-thirds of matches, according to analysis by El Economista.
That's too many for some fans, with nearly a third of ESPN Mexico readers saying they'd cut him from the World Cup squad in a poll this week. After being named the most overrated player by his peers in an ESPN survey, Dos Santos likely has had enough of ESPN polls.
We don't know for sure, since the player himself has been quiet in the last few months. After playing against San Jose, his brother and Galaxy team-mate Jonathan did the talking, assuring everyone that both brothers would be 100 percent at the World Cup. There now can be a serious debate about whether Gio will go. His fitness obviously is a concern, and Osorio has other dangerous, versatile options he can call on. With more insecurity at the back, it may be Gio sacrificed in the place of a young defender who provides more options at a place where Mexico is thin.
For months, the Colombian tactician implied Gio would be on the roster. Now, he doesn't sound so sure. The player himself knew he wasn't guaranteed a spot on the roster.
"I don’t think anybody has their place safe in the national team in the world of football," he said in January. "In the end, it’s very clear that the coach makes the decision and we as professionals have to do as well as possible on the field."
It's on Osorio to decide whether Giovani dos Santos can meet the high expectations he has in him or if the actual reality is that those expectations are too lofty for him to reach.