DENVER -- Six games, six wins, 23 goals for and seven against; it's been an impressive start for Gerardo "Tata" Martino in charge of the Mexico national team. But the 3-1 victory over Canada in Broncos Stadium brought three points in the most important game of the year so far.
El Tri has shaken off a rocky preparation for the Gold Cup -- with players dropping like flies -- to fly out of the blocks at the tournament with a 7-0 win over Cuba. The praise is pouring in and Mexico is the heavy favorite to lift the trophy on July 7 in Chicago, but Martino is under no illusion that this team is anywhere near the finished article.
"Nobody can claim that with six months in charge of the national team and six games that we are outstanding," surmised Martino in the news conference after Wednesday's game. "But I'm happy because the team wins and it isn't negligible that it has an average of three goals per game."
This match was a good CONCACAF litmus test for Martino and El Tri. Canada coach John Herdman changed six players from the starting XI that won against Martinique, but fielded a 5-4-1 formation, sat deep and sought to frustrate Mexico.
But for a defensive error by Zachary Brault-Guillard and some sharp work in the box from Raul Jimenez and then opening goal-scorer Roberto Alvarado -- while Canada was playing with a man down -- the Canadians could have gone into half-time at 0-0.
"I'm proud of the effort of the players," said Herdman afterwards. "We didn't roll over. I thought we had the momentum, but we got sucker-punched."
Mexico deserved to win, but El Tri did show cracks. That edginess was highlighted by Martino and Herdman exchanging heated words on the touch-line, with TV cameras catching Martino using a colorful Argentine phrase towards the English coach.
"He made a joke and I answered and that was it," said Martino afterwards, explaining that "I didn't understand it because he told it me in English."
There was enough in Canada's resistance to make you think that should these two teams meet in the semifinals, it won't be a foregone conclusion, especially when Canada fields its strongest XI.
The 1.70 xG for Mexico wasn't much more than Canada's 0.94 and there were six shots on target for Mexico compared to their opponents' four. Guardado's second goal, to make the score 3-1, came just two minutes after Lucas Cavallini had leveled for Canada. Even Guardado's first was scored seconds after Alphonso Davies had gone close to equalizing.
"It could easily be [a game against] Canada in the semifinal and it'll be equally hard or even harder than tonight," Martino said. "What they did well was sit back, defend well, concede possession and hit quickly on the counter-attack."
But like so many difficult nights in CONCACAF, it's the experienced players that step up. For all the ability of Davies, the younger Canadian players and the willingness and sheer effort of Mexico's young guns, it was the fiercely competitive Andres Guardado who rose to the challenge and turned the game, as if playing for Mexico in the Gold Cup is his calling in life.
Guardado replaced the injured Erick Gutierrez in the 37th minute and the difference was almost instant. The left-footed Gutierrez has long been touted as Guardado's successor, but his career seems to have stagnated, while Guardado continues to reach a level of consistency in his performances that few in CONCACAF can match.
Guardado's two goals saw him become Mexico's highest goal-scorer in Gold Cup history and he now also holds the record for most victories with a national team in the CONCACAF region.
At 32, there's a doubt over whether Guardado will make the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but the influence he still holds on the field in dictating play and in the locker room means it would take a brave person to bet against him being there.
"He'll have a role that his career and commitment deserve," said Martino. "He's a natural example for the national team and has been for some time.
"We'll have to see how things develop with the possibility of competing in another World Cup and, in that sense, it'll be whatever he decides. He's got such a competitive gene that it doesn't even go through his head that he started the process and may not finish it."
As Martino continues to mould El Tri into his image and erase the errors like the one that saw Nestor Araujo concede possession for Cavallini's goal, Guardado will remain a key figure in setting the tone for Martino's Mexico; someone the youngsters can look up to and seek to emulate.