Latin America

Liguilla preview: Santos vs. Chiapas

FoxSoccer.com EBEN LEHMAN
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In second set of Mexico's Primera Division quarterfinals, high octane attacks from Santos Laguna and Jaguares play their first leg on Sunday in Chiapas. FOXSoccer.com's Eben Lehman has the preview:

#4 Santos Laguna (27 points, 17 games) vs. #5 Jaguares (26 points, 17 games)
 
It was only September 2nd, but it looked like Santos Laguna’s season was already over. The 3-2 loss to Jaguares was the third Santos loss in four games and proved to be the final match for manager Diego Cocca. A four game winless streak while being outscored 9-4 is not how a Santos team is expected to perform. Fortunately for Santos fans, the loss proved to be a blessing in disguise. Apertura high point With five goals scored against America in Round 9, Jaguares officially put the rest of the league on notice. This wasn’t the meek jungle cats of the previous season. The Jaguares team of the Apertura featured speed, strength, and a dangerously effective scoring attack. The win over America came at the end of a seven game streak that featured five wins and no losses. The rest of the league had been warned.
After briefly flirting with Bob Bradley, Santos hired Benjamin Galindo and tasked the new manager with turning things around immediately. The low point of the coaching change quickly turned into a high, the move paid off in a big way. Galindo took no time to deliver results, beginning his tenure with five straight wins. Under Galindo’s guidance the team has played a more organized style while also producing some of the most entertaining football in the league. This is how a Santos team is supposed to play. Low point Jaguares largely exceeded all expectations this season, but there were also a few duds turned in along the way. Maybe not surprisingly, one followed a long cross-country travel day to a midweek road match in Tijuana. Jaguares came out totally flat, and it cost them. The 0-2 late October loss to the lowly Xolos was an aberration in what was otherwise a highly successful season.
For a team with such a potent offense, it’s no surprise that the key figure is a striker. Oribe Peralta led Santos in scoring this season, his 10 goals just missing out on the league scoring crown. Peralta’s importance to his club was clearly shown in the four games he missed this season. Santos went winless, losing three of the four matches. Player to watch The keys to team’s success this season are the two players up front. Colombian countrymen Jackson Martinez and Luis Gabriel Rey collectively scored 15 goals for Jaguares, giving opposing defenses fits in almost every match this season.

Six games into the season, Santos was in total disarray. The talent was there, but organization and team unity were lacking. It turns out that the cure was a coaching change. Under Galindo, Santos have regained their swagger, taking back the mantle as the highest scoring team in the league. The impressive scoring numbers are thanks in large part to Peralta, but also due to solid turns from Carlos Darwin Quintero and Christian Suarez.

And it’s not just the attacking players stepping up. Veteran goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, nearly two decades into his career, put together one of his best seasons in years. Sanchez will certainly be relied on to make a few more tough saves against Jaguares.

Facing a team of nearly equal firepower, central defender Felipe Baloy is also a player who can make a difference. Baloy has to be up to the task in the opening match, as fellow defender Santiago Hoyos serves a red card suspension.

Liguilla outlook

The man on the sidelines in Chiapas, Jose Guadalupe Cruz, is one of the most underrated managers in Mexico. Cruz is one of the best at adapting his system to fit the talent at hand. This season – thanks to a few shred offseason moves – Cruz was gifted a squad loaded with attacking talent. One thing the lineup isn’t lacking is pure scorers. In addition to Martinez and Rey, Jaguares also benefited from four goals each from Edgar Andrade and Franco Arizala.

As expected in a match between the two highest scoring teams in the league, it was a shootout when Jaguares and Santos met back in September. Jaguares prevailed 3-2 at home, but things may be tougher this time around. Key central defender Miguel Martinez will miss the opening match due to a red card suspension. Compounding the personnel issues on the backline, defender Ismael Fuentes is still recovering from injury and likely won’t be 100 percent even if he takes the field.

Santos might be the worst possible opponent to be face without a full-strength defense. If Jaguares want to advance to their first semifinals in club history, it may take a special performance from the remaining players protecting the goal.

Mexican Liguilla Previews:

Eben Lehman is a freelance writer covering the Mexican Primera Division and the Mexican national team. He is a founder and editor of FMF State of Mind. You can follow him on Twitter at @EbenLehman.

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