FOX Soccer Exclusive
High stakes for America, Chivas clash
Instead of throwing their weight around in the upper echelons of Mexican soccer, the two largest and most popular clubs in the country have suffered through a fallow period. The two sides have combined to win 21 championships during their storied histories, but neither team has experienced that level of success since Chivas lifted the Apertura title six years ago.
The lengthy drought may lead to questions about where the two clubs now fall in the Liga MX pecking order, but it does not temper the anticipation when these two sides clash. For better or for worse, it is still El Súper Clásico.
One of those precious meetings occurs on Saturday night at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. As one might expect with these two drama-laden outfits, it comes at a time when one of the two clubs – in this instance, Chivas – is mired in an almighty mess.
Most of the trouble started when Chivas owner Jorge Vergara leaned on consultant Johan Cruyff to help him select the latest in a lengthy line of managers under his auspices. Cruyff and Vergara turned to former Netherlands assistant John van't Schip in April to implement yet another string of changes to a club already too familiar with them. Van't Schip garnered scant backing from the expectant supporters at the outset given his modest CV (he joined Chivas after a two-year spell at A-League side Melbourne Heart) and watched as his efforts to steady the ship stumbled almost straight away due to key injuries (including Mexico starlet Marco Fabián), poor form and rampant speculation (mostly involving Fabián's future).
Chivas failed to win any of its first four Apertura outings and suffered a humiliating 1-0 defeat at Guatemalan minnows Xelajú in CONCACAF Champions League play to increase the pressure on van't Schip. The former Dutch international winger's ambitious project to overhaul the team has yielded few goals (just nine in ten games with four scored by summer arrival Rafael Márquez Lugo) and scant results (three wins in 11 games). The decision to unceremoniously cut ties with Julio Nava and Michel Vasquez earlier this week hinted that the situation has already spiraled well out of control.
A sorely needed 2-1 victory over Tigres UANL on Tuesday and a strong public statement in his favor from Cruyff earlier this week bolstered van't Schip's likely futile cause temporarily, but his future in Guadalajara appears tenuous unless he replicates the 3-1 victory secured at Estadio Azteca during the 2011 Apertura campaign.
That sort of result appears quite unlikely given América's triumph in the last meeting between the sides (a 1-0 victory at Estadio Omnilife in April) and Las Águilas' vastly superior record during the Apertura.
In stark contrast to their chaotic midtable rivals, América will likely coast into La Liguilla with a minimum of fuss. Miguel Herrera's side currently sits fourth in the table with just one defeat in 11 matches. A poor win ratio leaves América eight points behind leaders Toluca heading into the weekend, but Herrera's side looks poised to match its third-place finish from the 2012 Clausura campaign and mount a genuine push to win its first title since the 2005 Clausura.
América can point to the prolific form of Ecuadorian international striker Cristian Benítez as the primary reason for its bright start. The former Birmingham City and Santos Laguna striker currently leads Liga MX with seven goals in ten games, a haul including the 88th minute winner in Tuesday's 2-1 win at San Luis. Benítez relies on a creative midfield sparked by Daniel Montenegro and Rubens Sambueza to maintain his supply lines and polishes off the moves by using his devastating mixture of pace and power. He even managed to lift his 10-man side on Tuesday with an 88th minute winner.
A similar feat by Benítez in front of the partisan crowd at Estadio Azteca would likely carry América to a second Súper Clásico victory in six attempts and perhaps inspire Vergara to pull the plug on the van't Schip era. A Chivas win may just buy van't Schip some more time and provide Los Rojiblancos supporters with a satisfying highlight in an otherwise disappointing campaign destined to end without a Ligulla berth.
For both sides, the stakes are massive. Even in this altered world where other sides regularly top the Liga MX table, the ability to pull one over in this high-profile fixture and secure bragging rights until the next meeting still counts for a great deal.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.