By DAVID MOSSE
Pumas UNAM is in solid position to capture its seventh league title after earning a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Mexican Clausura final against Morelia Thursday night.
Francisco Palencia gave Pumas the lead with 69th-minute strike with a blast from outside the area to quite the home crowd. Joao Rojas scored an equalizer five minutes later, though, after he was on the receiving end of a pass from Luis Gabriel Rey. Morelia had chances for victory in the end, but came up empty.
The final leg (Sunday, 1 p.m., Telemundo) will be played at Puma’s Olimpico Universitario Stadium in Mexico City. Morelia will need strong performances from goalkeeper Federico Villar and defender Joel Huiqui, as Pumas figures to pile on the pressure. Rafael Marquez Lugo could be a dangerous threat for the visitors. Should the scoreline stay the same, the tie would go to extra time and penalties, if necessary.
The winner secures a place in Group C in the 2011-2012 CONCACAF Champions League, while the loser will face the Caribbean championship runner-up in the CCL preliminary round.
Here's a look ahead to the other important matches in Latin America this weekend:
Santos vs. Internacional, Saturday, 8 p.m.
The opening round of the 2011 Brazilian Serie A features a matchup between arguably the two strongest sides in the competition.
Santos continues its marathon of games after capturing the Paulista title and advancing to the semifinal of the Copa Libertadores, though it remains to be seen whether Muricy Ramalho will field his strongest lineup on Saturday night or choose to rest key players. His chief concern must be the health of Neymar and Elano. Both players have assumed greater responsibility since Paulo Henrique Ganso went down with a thigh injury.
Internacional won the Gaucho state title in dramatic fashion, overcoming archrival Gremio in a penalty shootout to provide a boost for embattled manager Paulo Roberto Falcao. He must find the right combination in the center of the park, with Argentine Mario Bolatti expected to command a starring role. The trip to Sao Paulo is a less than ideal way to start the campaign, but it also represents an opportunity to make a statement against a very tough opponent.
Flamengo vs. Avai, Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Ronaldinho returned to Brazil to boost his chances for a national team recall, but it was teammate Thiago Neves who impressed Mano Menezes enough to be included in the list for the upcoming friendlies against the Netherlands and Romania. Ronaldinho had his moments, but Neves was the true catalyst for Wanderley Luxemburgo’s side, which captured the Rio de Janeiro state championship in dominating fashion.
Luxemburgo believes his team still needs a couple of signings to contend for the Brazilian League title, but Flamengo will be a fascinating team to watch from the outset, especially since the campaign begins against Avai. This tiny club has taken Brazilian soccer by storm after advancing to the semifinal of the Brazil Cup, knocking off Botafogo and Sao Paulo along the way. Flamego better be ready.
Fluminense vs. Sao Paulo, Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
Fluminense begins defense of its crown at home still under the stewardship of interim boss Enderson Moreira, as the club awaits Abel Braga’s return from Qatar. Fred will be the chief threat offensively, and the star striker received some very good news this week in the form of a national-team recall. Rafael Moura could join him up front with playmaker Dario Conca providing the service. It remains to be seen whether Deco will be available for Flu.,
Sao Paulo is likely to be without Luis Fabiano, who has yet to suit up for the club. The Rivaldo experiment proved to be a failure and the former World Player of the Year could be on his way out, but embattled manager Paulo Cesar Carpegiani can count on the brilliance of Lucas, who may emerge as the best player in Brazilian soccer by the end of the year.
Velez Sarsfield vs. Gimnasia (La Plata), Sunday, 3 p.m.
Ricardo Gareca promised Velez Sarsfield wouldn’t sacrifice the domestic title in order to win the Copa Libertadores, and Gareca did field his strongest side last week against Lanus, but Velez still lost, 3-2, and the lead atop the Clausura standings is down to one point over Godoy Cruz. El Fortin returns home to face 16th-placed Gimnasia, and Gareca will expect his attacking players to flourish.
Ricky Alvarez continues to emerge as one of the biggest stars in Argentinian soccer, while David Ramirez showcased his goal-scoring ability against Lanus, finding the back of the net twice. Velez also received a significant boost with the return of Mexican international Guillermo Franco, who missed three months with an injury but looked in excellent form in the midweek win over Paraguayan side Libertad.
Arsenal Sarandi vs. Boca Juniors, Sunday, 7:20 p.m.
Last week’s win over River Plate provided a significant boost for Boca Juniors, with Juan Roman Riquelme even expressing a desire to play in the Copa America. Boca does face a tricky road fixture against Arsenal Sarandi, though, and will be without Clemente Rodriguez, suspended after being sent off in the Superclasico. River Plate midfielder Matias Almeyda suffered the same fate.
Martin Palmero found the back of the net against River and looks poised for a strong finish to his career, while Pablo Mouche is a major threat with his movements off the ball. Riquelme benefits from the protection provided by Nicolas Colazo in the center of the park, and goalkeeper Cristian Luchetti is in excellent form. The spirits are high for Julio Cesar Falcioni’s side and a win on Sunday would be big.
Danubio vs. Nacional, Saturday, 3 p.m.
Nacional is closing in on a Clausura title and could take a giant step with a victory over Danubio on Sunday. Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo remains an influential figure, while striker Tabare Viudez can be devastating up front; however, it was substitute Santiago Garcia who fired home the winner in the 1-0 triumph over Penarol two weeks ago that will likely prove to be the championship decider.
Matias Cabrera will be entrusted with establishing control in the center of the park, while Gabriel Marques anchors the back-line in front of goalkeeper Rodrigo Munoz. Nacional has lost two games away from home, and Danubio can be tough to beat at home, but expect the league leaders to be highly motivated. Manager Juan Ramon Carrasco will be disappointed if his team doesn’t pick up all three points.
Defensor Sporting vs. Penarol, Sunday, 3 p.m.
Penarol’s success in the Copa Libertadores, where the club has advanced to the semifinal, belies the fact that Diego Aguirre’s side is fading domestically. Two straight losses mean Penarol is three points behind Nacional atop the Clausura standings, and Aguirre faces a difficult dilemma ahead of the upcoming clash against a talented Defensor Sporting team that is tough to beat at home.
Aguirre rested several starters last week and Penarol was hammered by River Plate, so expect the manager to field his strongest lineup, including the likes of Dario Rodriguez and Diego Alonso. Argentine playmaker Alejandro Martinuccio is entrusted with providing much of the service for Alonso, and Fabian Estoyanoff has proved capable of scoring big goals. Estoyanoff could be a tough matchup for Sporting.
Which team do you see winning the Mexican Clausura championship? Who do you see winning the Santos-Internacional match? What match-up are you most looking forward to seeing?
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