BREMEN, Germany (AP) – Pablo Barrera received the latest in a series of humbling reminders about the current state of his affairs during the second half of Cruz Azul's 1-0 win over Puebla on Sunday afternoon.
In a match his struggling side needed to win against an overwhelmed opponent reduced to ten men, Barrera offered few signs to suggest he had once earned a £4million move to West Ham United, featured three times as a substitute at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa or tormented Jonathan Bornstein in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final little more than a year ago.
Cruz Azul manager Guillermo Vázquez decided he could live without Barrera's minimal contributions to the game as his side chased the winner Mariano Pavone eventually provided seven minutes from time. The choice to hand reserve team midfielder Raúl Vidal a first-team debut in Barrera's place merely underscored Vázquez's displeasure with the situation.
Barrera cut short his European excursion after two seasons to avoid this exact type of scenario. He returned to Mexico last month to obtain regular playing time at club level and rediscover the type of form required to retain his place in Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre's lineup on the international stage.
On his best days, Barrera deserves his usual spot on the right flank for both club and country and shows why several European sides expressed interest in signing him from UNAM Pumas in the wake of his World Cup displays two years ago.
The 25-year-old offers a technical, two-footed approach to his work in the wide areas. His quickness allows him to use his skill to attack and exploit opposing defenders with the ball at his feet. Once he isolates his marker, he explodes toward goal to combine with others or test the opposing goalkeeper with a drive from distance. His respectable goalscoring record during his days with Pumas and his valued support work with Mexico provide proof of his ability to contribute at the sharp end.
Barrera's current issues stem from his inability to produce enough of those displays when he joined West Ham in time for the 2010-11 season. He started just six matches in league play during his one full season with the club as he struggled to settle into a new competitive setting and a vastly different culture. West Ham's poor league form and somewhat robust tactical deportment under Avram Grant offered him fewer opportunities to impress as other players jumped ahead of him in the queue.
Former Mexico boss Javier Aguirre brought Barrera to Real Zaragoza on loan last season in a bid to help the winger rediscover his form in a league more suited to his technical qualities. Aguirre included Barrera and fellow Mexico teammate Efrain Juárez (another misfit loan signing from Celtic) in his plans at the start of the season, but Barrera's promising run of matches in the starting XI unceremoniously concluded in early December.
The end of Aguirre's tenure shortly before the new year pushed Barrera out of the first-team picture and restricted him to the occasional appearance off the substitutes' bench as his teammates staved off relegation.
A return to West Ham this summer never looked particularly likely given his bumpy first season, the club's return to the English top flight and Sam Allardyce's utilitarian set of expectations for his wingers. Instead of trying to fight his way into Allardyce's plans, Barrera decided to pursue a return to Mexico and eventually sealed a move to Cruz Azul for an undisclosed fee last month in an attempt to revive his career.
Such a prudent decision makes a great deal of sense for a player seeking to retain his place in the national team set-up, but it also places the burden of expectation on him to succeed under a significant amount of scrutiny. There are no loan moves to make and no places to hide for Barrera in his native country. He has proven that he can thrive in Liga MX, but he must now do so all over again.
Early returns indicate Barrera may face more of a struggle than he anticipated as he attempts to establish his place in the team. Vázquez prefers a 4-4-2 formation that doesn't fit Barrera's strengths as neatly as the 4-2-3-1 employed by de la Torre usually does. Barrera will do the necessary work in his defensive half required in this type of set-up, but his effectiveness wanes the further he is from the opponent's penalty area. His modest production of no goals, no assists and three shots in his first four appearances suggests he must find the confidence necessary to fuel his incisive forays and plot alternative ways to make his presence felt in the run of play.
If Barrera does not improve his form in rather short order, de la Torre will face increasingly vociferous calls to omit the speedy winger from the national team picture. Barrera's displays at international level this year have fallen well short of the lofty standards established by his Gold Cup and World Cup exploits. He kept his spot for qualifying wins over Grenada and El Salvador in June, but de la Torre's continued insistence on substituting him during the second half betrays the rather tenuous hold he maintains on his starting place.
The onus now falls on Barrera to persuade de la Torre and Vázquez to view him as an integral figure for both club and country. Only an uptick in form will prevent the type of scenario Barrera suffered on Sunday afternoon from occurring more frequently. He possesses more than enough ability to come through this difficult stretch, but he must do so in relatively short order to ensure those temporary setbacks do not transform into a status quo he will likely find far more difficult to overcome.