FOX Soccer Exclusive
Clubs prepare for Liguilla challenge
The last throes of the Clausura offered a reminder of the excitement and the upheaval ahead when the Liguilla starts in midweek.
With one glaring, Guadalajara-based exception, this field is comprised of a group of clubs reasonably expected to reach this stage. Every year – and every sixty years or so, in Atlas' case – represents an opportunity for most of these sides to add to the trophy case or mount a significant challenge to do so.
Tigres enters the playoffs as the top seed, a poisoned designation that has produced just one winner (Santos Laguna in the 2012 Clausura) in the past seven tournaments. Ricardo Ferretti and his players did their best to sidestep that historical hurdle by stumbling through the second half of the campaign. A resounding 2-0 victory against Club América in the top-of-the-table clash at Estadio Azteca scuppered those plans and underlined the superiority of this deep and talented group for most of these 17 matches.
América nipped Atlas for the cherished second seed – four of the past seven winners have started from that perch – on goal difference after both teams suffered defeats at the weekend. Perhaps the setback against Tigres will offer América a timely reminder of the toil ahead as the club attempts to secure its first title since the 2005 Clausura. Atlas achieved its primary goal for this season when it avoided relegation weeks ago, but this rare foray into the upper reaches of the table supplies an unexpected chance to snatch its first title since the 1950-51 season.
Morelia and Cruz Azul constitute an intriguing middle class, though no club seeded lower than third has lifted the title since those renowned Cinderellas from C.D. Guadalajara did so as the eighth seed in the 2006 Apertura. Potent striker Héctor Mancilla – as evidenced in the 2-1 victory at Santos Laguna on Saturday – gives Morelia a chance to win any match, while Cruz Azul boasts the league's most potent attack (35 goals in 17 matches, including five in the victory at Monterrey on Saturday) and a squad bolstered by the return of Pablo Barrera and the recent triumph in Copa MX.
Even the lower seeds harbor realistic hopes of advancing through the ranks. Santos Laguna chucked away a top-four place with that home defeat to Morelia, but Pedro Caixinha's side remains a threat due to its balanced squad and its recent success in the Liguilla (one title and three finals appearances in the past six tournaments). Pumas can turn to in-form midfielder Javier Cortés to bolster its efforts ahead of the Mexico City clash against América. Monterrey qualified only after eighth-placed Querétaro exited through the trap door (no relegated side can participate in the Liguilla, according to league regulations), but Victor Manuel Vucetich's seasoned outfit reinforced its credentials and its obstinate ways in knockout competitions with a third straight CONCACAF Champions League.
All eight participants must recover quickly from a frenetic final weekend to prepare for the quarterfinal series slated to start in midweek. With the seeds now settled, let us take a brief look at the ties ahead:
(1) Tigres vs. (8) Monterrey: The defensive problems afflicting Monterrey for much of this week (including the five goals shipped to Cruz Azul and the two-goal deficit incurred against Santos Laguna on Wednesday) typified the errors presented throughout much of the Clausura. Tigres – particularly if that victory at Estadio Azteca represents a return to form – possesses the necessary nous to exploit any uncertainty within the opposition ranks. Count out a Vucetich-managed side cautiously, but this tie favors the top seed at the moment.
(2) Club América vs. (7) Pumas: América will enter this series with the burden of expectation placed squared upon its shoulders. Miguel Herrera boasts all of the tools required – including Liga MX top scorer Christian Benítez (12 goals) – to guide his side to its first title since 2005, but that pressure could take its toll at some stage during the Liguilla. Pumas enters this tie with far more freedom – though any derby meeting represents a must-win encounter, of course – and could use that liberty wisely.
(3) Atlas vs. (6) Santos Laguna: The Guadalajara-based side does not venture into these successful waters very often. Tomás Boy probably would have preferred a more difficult run-in to the campaign (two draws and two wins against non-playoff qualifiers) to help his players prepare for this genuine test against a battle-hardened Santos side. The frequent finalists must overcome their inevitable fatigue and return to their roots (solid at the back, incisive on the counter) as they attempt to dispatch this season's surprise package.
(4) Morelia vs (5) Cruz Azul: Expect a fair few goals over the two legs between these two potent sides. Cruz Azul possesses more strength in depth – if Mariano Pavone isn't firing, there are several players capable of picking up the slack – to navigate through the rough patches. Morelia carries a searing run of form (ten matches unbeaten, including four wins from the past five outings) into the postseason. If this group can maintain its defensive resolve (no more than one goal conceded in the past night outings) against the league's most formidable attacking outfit, then Mancilla could provide the sharpness required to secure a semifinal place.