FOX Soccer Exclusive
Clausura Liguilla has familiar feel
Outsiders have emerged from all corners of Mexico to disrupt the established order in Liga MX over the past two tournaments. That insurgency carried Club Tijuana to a title and lifted the likes of Atlas, Club León and Morelia to the upper reaches of the table.
León and Tijuana dropped out of the running before the Liguilla started after disappointing Clausura campaigns, but the challenges of Atlas and Morelia – not exactly a minnow with TV Azteca's backing and an increasingly frequent playoff contender, it must be said – persisted into the quarterfinals until the giants exerted their will on the proceedings.
Atlas can at least rue a series of exciting and peculiar circumstances for its demise against Santos Laguna on Sunday night. A scoreless draw in the first leg on Thursday left the tie finely poised for the return at Estadio Jalisco. Omar Bravo's disputed early goal – replays suggested the ball did cross the line before Oswaldo Sánchez batted it away – even provided Guadalajara's second side with some hope of overturning one of Liga MX's most successful sides in recent seasons.
Shoddy work at the back dashed those aspirations inside the opening half hour. Andrés Renteria poked home from close range after a dreadful mixup presented him with a simple opportunity to equalize. Facundo Erpen's ill-conceived header minutes later forced the onrushing Miguel Pinto to handle outside of his penalty area and reduced the home side to 10 men. Carlos Darwin Quintero's ensuing second-half double – inevitable given the energy expended during a frantic first half – ultimately quelled the home side and sparked a furious reaction from Tomás Boy at the final whistle.
Morelia's departure exhibited most of the same tension without reaching the same heights. Cruz Azul entered the second leg at Estadio Morelos with a 4-2 advantage. Mariano Pavone – subsequently removed due to injury – squandered a couple of early chances to render the rest of the night meaningless in the midst of Morelia's energetic start. Rodrigo Salinas eventually threw his team a lifeline on the stroke of halftime with a thunderous drive inside the far post. One second-half goal would have sent Morelia through, but a lack of fluidity in the final third left Carlos Bustos' side to lament its inability to take advantage of its bright spells in the affair.
The departures of Atlas and Morelia left a rather predictable final four with two capital sides meeting two perennial contenders for a place in the final. The prospect of the victor emerging from a pool of Club America, Cruz Azul, Monterrey and Santos Laguna comes as little surprise, but the emergence of this particular quartet does show that the usual suspects have now closed ranks with the Clausura now on the line.
(2) Club América – (8) Monterrey: The favorites from Mexico City must tread carefully against Victor Manuel Vucetich's hardened warriors when this tie starts on Wednesday. Monterrey navigated through Clasico Regio and showed all of the traits required to mount yet another title challenge by dispatching top-seeded Tigres 2-1 on aggregate. Vucetich will once again lean on his veterans – led ably from the front by Aldo de Nigris (if he starts both legs) and Humberto Suazo – to implement his precise tactical instructions and stifle an América side capable of breaking quickly and exposing the rickety Monterrey rearguard.
The outcome of this tie likely hinges on how well Monterrey can restrict those forward forays and use its opportunities to punish an outfit with doubts over its own defensive composition in the wake of Diego Reyes' left foot sprain. If this two-legged tie starts to resemble the end-to-end fare of the second match between Atlas and Santos Laguna, then América could take control with its dazzling array of attacking weapons and its well-cultivated reputation for tearing apart opposing defense.
(5) Cruz Azul – (6) Santos Laguna: Most of the focus in the buildup to the first leg on Thursday will revolve around the status of the two center forwards. Cruz Azul top scorer Pavone limped off in the first half of the 1-0 defeat to Morelia with a suspected knee injury. Pavone joined Santos striker Oribe Peralta (right knee) on the list of potential injury doubts for midweek after the Mexico striker missing out entirely in Santos' victory in Guadalajara on Sunday.
Both teams boast significant depth in that department – prolific substitute Javier Orozco replaced Pavone on Sunday night, while Carlos Darwin Quintero and Andrés Renteria scored all three goals at Estadio Jalisco – yet function better in the final third with their top strikers in the starting XI. In a Liguilla that has seen several teams hindered by poor finishing and with Santos a fairly miserly defensive outfit, the work of those replacements could determine the outcome in this series.