This was always going to be the tough one.
Mexico saw off South American opponents in the build-up to the Gold Cup. El Tri knew it would roll past Cuba. Martinique on matchday three hardly intimidates. Canada? Well, with players in some of Europe's top leagues and a renewed sense of optimism thanks to an exciting new generation? The Canadians could pose a challenge.
John Herdman put together a game plan that made his team tough to break down. The only thing that could undo The Reds' five-man back line was a mistake or a golazo.
Mexico got one of each and then, when a response was needed after conceding, added a third.
Roberto Alvarado put the ball in the back of the net in the 40th minute, slotting in a rebound after Raul Jimenez was gifted a shooting chance by Canada defender Zachary Brault-Guillard. Just after the halftime break, it was Andres Guardado, in off the bench for the injured Erick Gutierrez, providing the golazo.
It was the typically consistent Nestor Araujo who gave Herdman's side a reason for optimism, gifting Jonathan David a ball the teenager moved on to Lucas Cavallini. The Puebla forward scored, but the hope was short-lived. Uriel Antuna beat two men down the right wing and directed a cross toward the penalty spot. Guardado shifted to his right foot, took a shot and watched as his effort deflected off a defender, off the post and in.
"Clearly, the level of demand was very high today. When you see what happens here, Copa America, what could happen in the Euros, honestly, today, when teams are well-organized it’s hard to attack," Mexico manager Tata Martino said in his post-match news conference. "What I liked was that the team still controlled the game, but it was really hard for us to be able to translate the amount of the ball we had into chances to score.
"I really value the fact that we won a game with these characteristics. I think it’s a good point of the game for what we’re going to find from the quarterfinals on."
Ultimately, each manager will be happy enough with how his team played. Mexico faced a challenge and overcame it. El Tri are well on their way to winning all three group games for just the second time in Gold Cup history and easing into the quarterfinals. Canada should be there too, with optimism a semifinal place and a rematch against Martino's team is within reach. In fact, Herdman said he planned this match with a future rematch in mind.
"We didn’t want to show everything tonight," he said. "We wanted to learn a lot from Mexico. We’ve got an important game against Cuba which hopefully will qualify us for the quarterfinals. Tonight we lost, but we learned, and we learned a lot."
Martino stressed before the match how much he wanted his team to take this game seriously. His players payed heed, with a professional effort against a Canada team that was frustrating - especially for the first half-hour of the game. Adversity has been uncommon in the Martino era, which seems to have unsettled the Argentine himself. Multiple times in news conference he has referenced learning more about a team and its style of play by losing than by winning.
A more pleasant way to learn a similar lesson is to have a game like the one at Mile High Stadium on Wednesday. For the first time since the manager took over in January, his team needed to break down a well-drilled opponent. While Canada had played competitive clashes in the Concacaf Nations League, Mexico was playing friendly matches against South American teams in transition. Those teams had more quality, yes, but less of an idea of how they wanted to play. Herdman's players knew exactly what it wanted to do and nearly did it.
They were frustrated by a Mexico team that had its own ideas, that stayed true to Martino's style of play and ultimately let that style show. When Canada could've gotten back into the match, Mexico shut down the mini-rally.
Martino's squad did what it needed to do. Objective achieved. Job done. Now, it's on to a final group game that should be less taxing. The business end of the tournament awaits.