Piojo Alvarado shines as Conejo Perez bids farewell

MEXICO CITY -- Oscar "Conejo" Perez couldn't contain the tears as the crowd inside Estadio Azteca sung his name ahead of his farewell ceremonial appearance on Saturday. The 46-year-old, 1.72-meter goalkeeper made his debut for La Maquina when UB40 was topping the Billboard charts back in 1993 and recently brought to an end a career that saw him establish himself as a legend of the Mexican domestic game.

It was a touching moment, but when the match started for real, the Conejo show became the Piojo show: Roberto "Piojo" Alvarado gave a demonstration of just why he is already a mainstay in the Mexican national team and why European scouts are surely keeping an eye on his every performance.

Alvarado, 20, was born five years after Perez made his debut for Cruz Azul, but if he stays on the path he is on, the Guanajuato native will win far more than the 57 caps the goalkeeper did for El Tri.

This wasn't a case of Alvarado netting the winner or providing a key assist to grab all the attention. In fact, it was young Toluca midfielder Alan Medina who found the energy in second half injury-time to burst forward, tap-in to snatch a 1-1 draw and earn the Sunday morning headlines.

But Alvarado was the class performer throughout and no player on the field had more touches of the ball over the 90 minutes. He showed vision to send through Elias Hernandez in the 80th minute, struck the crossbar in the 72nd after cutting inside from the right and, perhaps most telling of all, chased back to make a vital tackle on the edge of the Cruz Azul penalty area in the 26th.

"Robbie is a very intelligent player, he has a capacity to understand what to do, he puts into practice what you ask of him with a lot of ease and that shows maturity in his game at his young age," said Cruz Azul coach Pedro Caixinha in a news conference after the game, when asked by ESPN FC.

Alvarado is the type of player you can give ball to anywhere and he tends to find a solution, picking the right pass; that maturity was partly forged by Alvarado already having over 100 league starts under his belt. The awareness of space, the pause and clarity in his play have shades of Hector Herrera, even if the Atletico Madrid midfielder does play deeper.

"He keeps growing, he's a player that sooner or later, as I said a year ago, will end up in Europe, he has everything to do it," added Caixinha. "He's a great professional. He's picked up great habits that are 24-7."

Alvarado's value to Caixinha is obvious; no player has more Liga MX minutes since he joined and he even cut short his post-Gold Cup vacation to be ready for the Apertura.

One area of debate is how the Portuguese coach seems to have settled on playing Alvarado on the right side of a midfield three in a 4-3-3, which contrasts with his right wing role for Mexico under Gerardo "Tata" Martino in a similar system. Watching Alvarado for Cruz Azul, the Argentine may be forced to rethink.

For Cruz Azul fans, letting the lead slip against Toluca was another let-down, but the game was also another reminder that if La Maquina is to break the 22-year title drought extending back to the days in which Conejo Perez was a spritely youth, Alvarado is going to be a key figure.