By MARC SERBER
Club America enters the Liga MX Apertura playoffs with the league’s best record, but 10 players are just returning from New Zealand, after having to go to the other side of the world to help Mexico qualify for the World Cup.
Staring down the barrel at Club America in their Liguilla quarterfinal matchup is a Tigres UANL side that pipped Chiapas to the final playoff spot on goal differential, but are not to be taken lightly. The Nuevo Leon side used a five game unbeaten run (including a 1-0 win over Club America) to barge its way into the post season.
In addition to the players returning, Miguel Herrera return to the head coaching position at the Estadio Azteca for America. While he was with the club side, Herrera led the team to an incredible 10-1-1 record in their first 12 games, with the best goalscoring and defense in the league by a wide margin. Raul Jimenez leads the team with seven goals while defender Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and goalkeeper Moises Muñoz have shut the door on opposition attacks.
On the other side of the field, Tigres’ Ricardo Ferretti is an experienced head coach in his own right, with three league titles under his belt. He has a coach on the field in the form of Mexico national team veteran Carlos Salcido. If playmaker Lucas Lobos is fully fit and Jorge Torres Nilo rediscovers his top form bombing forward from his wingback position, then Tigres UANL could be a tricky proposition.
Here is a look at the other matches in the Liga MX Apertura playoffs quarterfinal round:
(2) SANTOS LAGUNA vs. (7) QUERETARO
Defenses both domestically and abroad are trying to figure out how to stop Oribe Peralta, who finished the Liga MX season for Santos Laguna with nine goals and put five past New Zealand in the last two weeks.
If Peralta is the goal machine, then Colombian international Carlos Quintero is the architect with eight assists. The 2012 Clausura winners have plenty of big tournament experience, including making it to the finals of the last two CONCACAF Champions Leagues before losing to Monterrey on both occasions.
Queretaro, meanwhile, is a team that’s not even supposed to be in the top division. The Gallos Blancos were relegated after the Clausura, but Jaguares de Chiapas was sold by TV Azteca to a group that moved the team to Queretaro. The relocation, combined with a shuffling of other clubs, meant Queretaro’s absence from the top flight was short lived.
The central Mexican club has a pair of dangerous strikers in Chilean international Esteban Paredes and Colombian Wilberto Cosme, who combined to score 12 of the team’s 20 goals.
If Santos Laguna can shut down Queretaro’s dynamic duo, then the Guerreros, or warriors, should have no problems silencing the newest version of the White Roosters.
CLUB LEON (3) vs. MORELIA (6)
This should be a fun 180 minutes.
Morelia, as its 26 goals for and 23 goals against illustrates, lives and dies by the attack.
Morelia took part in 10 matches during the regular season in which three or more goals were scored, and they didn’t always come out on the winning end. In Ecuadorian international Jefferson Montero, Morelia have one of the league’s most exciting attackers.
While Montero runs at players to open up space, veteran Hector Mancilla scores goals in bunches. The Chilean international has 20 goals in 31 appearances since joining this year from Atlas. The problem for Morelia, however, is that Club Leon boasts the second best defense in the Liga MX. Love him or hate him, one can’t deny that Rafael Marquez has had a bit of a renaissance since coming back to Mexico.
Up top, Mauro Boselli scored 11 of Leon’s 25 goals to finish second in the race for the golden boot. At the moment, Boselli shows no signs of slowing down after hitting a hat trick in Leon’s 5-0 hammering of Club Tijuana to close out the regular season.
The Argentine knows a thing or two about scoring in big tournaments. Boselli won the Copa Libertadores with Boca Juniors in 2007 and again in 2009 with Estudiantes, when he finished as the tournament’s top scorer with eight goals.
Leon and Morelia finished 0-0 back on Aug. 10. Expect there to be goals this time around.
(4) CRUZ AZUL vs. TOLUCA (5)
Both of these teams come into the tournament with a bit of a chip on their shoulders.
Cruz Azul lost last year’s final after conceding a two-goal aggregate lead in five ferocious minutes at the Estadio Azteca. Toluca won the regular season in the 2012 Apertura and looked odds on favorites to win its 11th title before being shocked by upstarts Club Tijuana 4-1 in the final.
So the pressure is on both teams to make amends.
Cruz Azul has a good mixture of veterans and battle-hardened 20-somethings. Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro hold the midfield while the recently naturalized and capped Christian “Chaco” Gimenez remains one of the best playmakers in the Mexican game. Cruz Azul defenders Julio Dominguez and Alejandro Castro are solid, but will have to deal with the league’s top scorer in Pablo Velazquez.
The lanky Paraguayan smashed in 12 goals in 15 appearances to announce his arrival in the Liga MX after eight years on the books at Libertad. The problem with Toluca is that the Diablos Rojos tend to blow hot or cold.
Toluca finished with the most goals (33) in the league and just two losses, but drew nine matches including its last four games to end the season. While young Isaac Brizuela’s play has earned him his first three caps, some pundits feel there is still too much of a reliance on the 37-year-old Sinha. After not only flying to New Zealand, but playing against the All Whites, does the club’s legendary No. 10 have the legs to break through Cruz Azul’s cement defense?
The first match of the Liga MX playoffs holds the answer.
What do you think of the Liga MX quarterfinal playoff round matchups? Which sides do you see making it through to the next round? Do you see the jet-lag hurting Club America? Can Queretaro surprise Santos Laguna?
Share your thoughts below.