FOX Soccer Exclusive
Tijuana faces huge odds vs. Mineiro
If not for the stunning ascent of Peruvian minnows Real Garcilaso – a club founded just four years ago and the first quarterfinalist from that country in 16 years – over the past few months, these Xolos would constitute the compelling fairytale of this edition of the Libertadores by quite some distance.
Unfortunately for the neutrals, the arrival of Ronaldinho and his band of well-heeled teammates from Brazil for the first leg at Estadio Caliente on Thursday night also presents the potential start of its conclusion.
Tijuana enters this tie as fairly considerable underdogs to reach the last four despite its exemplary work so far. Antonio Mohamed and his well-drilled players dismissed sputtering Palmeiras 2-1 on aggregate in the round of 16 under similar circumstances, but this test against the competition's top side to date raises a host of challenges perhaps too considerable for the Xolos to manage.
Mineiro brushed aside fellow Brazilian giants São Paulo 6-1 on aggregate in the last round to reinforce their title credentials. Cuca relies on a mix of familiar names (Ronaldinho, Jô and Diego Tardelli) and emerging stars (mooted Borussia Dortmund purchase and recent Brazil call-up Bernard, fellow Seleção inclusion Réver, purported Roma target Marcos Rocha) to form a potent side of capable of shredding opponents (22 goals in eight matches, tops in the Libertadores) in its 4-3-3 setup and withstanding the inevitable defensive breakdowns.
Mohamed will set out his team to avoid that particular affliction as he attempts to mastermind another shock. The savvy Argentine boss brought the Xolos to prominence with a conservative, counterattacking side that stands in stark contrast to the more ambitious approaches usually preferred in Liga MX. His knowledge of South American competition – he guided Independiente to the Copa Sudamericana title in 2010 – ensured he stuck that diligent deportment in the Xolos' first excursion into the Libertadores.
It has proven a masterstroke with the Xolos dominant at home and efficient on the road. Tijuana picked off Millonarios in Bogotá to open group play and ushered Palmeiras out of the competition with the now-famous 2-1 victory in São Paulo last week. Those triumphs away from home leveraged the Xolos' impeccable record at Estadio Caliente – four games played, three won (including a memorable 1-0 victory over Corinthians in March), one drawn, zero goals conceded – into this quarterfinal run.
A place in the semifinals hinges on Tijuana's ability to retain its defensive shape in spite of some significant personnel concerns in central defense. Pablo Aguilar will definitely miss the first leg after procuring his second yellow card in Brazil. Javier Gandolfi must prove his fitness after exiting in São Paulo with an Achilles complaint, though he contends he will feature from the start in the first leg.
Gandolfi – the club captain and one of the side's most consistent players – supplies a necessary stabilizing presence for the rigorous demands ahead. Tijuana cannot afford to ship a goal or two at home and then try to erase the deficit away from home in order to progress. This is a side best left to its preferred devices – attack quickly with relatively few numbers and plenty of long diagonals, exploit space when it crops up and punish teams for committing too many players forward – and one ill-suited to chase a second leg result away from home.
But if the Xolos can somehow coax another 1-0 result out of the first leg – Mohamed's teams thrive on producing that exact score line – or even replicate the scoreless draw from the opening match against Palmeiras, then a potential place in the semifinals remains on the table. Few, if any, teams left in this competition are better suited to absorb pressure and react appropriately to fulfill their objectives.
Such a reward appears unlikely given the magnitude of the task and the strength of the opposition. If the Xolos do exit the competition at this stage, then the imminent departures of Mohamed (poised to return to Argentina for family concerns after this Libertadores campaign) and perhaps a few of his players (Fidel Martínez and Duvier Riascos are both possible summer targets for European sides) will likely to close out this wonderful chapter in the club's short history.
It is, however, not certain that the Xolos' will end their story here. Their recent success and the unpredictable nature of the Libertadores this season leaves open the possibility that this group still has more of its tale left to write. It is now up to them to somehow grasp this opportunity with a positive first leg result and rely on their fundamental tenets to confound expectations once more.