Perennial powers exit as Liga MX Liguilla reaches semifinal stage

Every member of the Big Four will watch the rest of the Liguilla from home after Club America, Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM all crashed out this weekend.

Cruz Azul suffered yet another early Liguilla exit after chucking away a two-goal lead to Santos Laguna on Saturday night.

Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images

One by one, the four biggest clubs in Mexico watched their Liguilla dreams disappear over the past week. They collectively possess the budgets and the powers to sweep aside all in their path. They instead slinked off over the weekend to contemplate how their inherent advantages somehow led to postseason exits before the last four. 

Guadalajara faltered before the quarterfinal stage even started. Chivas only needed to win on the final day at home to Monterrey to secure a place in the postseason. The abject display submitted left the club to peer at the playoffs from the outside once again and wonder if the unthinkable – relegation to the hinterlands of Ascenso MX – might actually occur next year. And those issues cropped up well before the farce started again with Ricardo La Volpe’s sensational exit and the subsequent sniping destined to fester for some time.

Cruz Azul hoped to open its Liguilla chase in the three-ring circus at Estadio Omnilife. La Máquina drew holders Club León instead through the failings of others. The steady enough stalemate at the Nou Camp provided a chance to emerge victorious from a monsoon at Estadio Azul on Saturday night. The ensuing affair – Cruz Azul up two within 21 minutes only to permit the lead fritter away before the hour – dripped with the residue of the past. This season ended with a truly meaningful victory in the CONCACAF Champions League, but the domestic drought continues nevertheless.

Club América quenched its championship thirst during the 2013 Clausura and waited for a dynasty that never emerged. This lurching campaign included a famous romp over Guadalajara, but that rout proved a mirage for a side still adjusting to Miguel Herrera’s departure. The dramatic 5-3 victory over Santos Laguna in midweek offered another false dawn, though one noticeably marred by away goals. América held out resolutely until conceding twice in the final 10 minutes, snatching a goal back to create a tense conclusion and ultimately tumbling out due to the defensive lapses at home. There is repair work to do during the summer to slide Herrera’s former project back on track.

Pumas UNAM represented the last hope for the traditional powers. The resurgent side nicked a last-gasp equalizer in midweek at Pachuca to establish the foundation for a triumph in the return leg on Sunday evening. Enner Valencia stripped away those underpinnings in short order as the visitors scored four times before the hour in Mexico City to seal a place in the last four. The progress made during the Clausura constitutes a good first step for a side left in the wilderness at the end of last year, but this exit still leaves a mark.

The same sentiment applies across the board for a quartet of clubs accustomed to grander departures and a capital city used to having at least one representative in the latter stages of the Liguilla. The emergence of strong sides across the country – Monterrey, Santos Laguna, Tigres, Tijuana and Toluca over the past few years – isn’t a new phenomenon. But the utter destruction represents a blow for the status quo, a complete disaster unseen since the 2011 Apertura.

It is left to the four clubs to pick up the pieces and start planning a response during the close season. The rest of the country will focus on the remaining teams left in the Liguilla mix and wait for the victor to emerge over the next few weeks.

(2) Toluca – (8) Club León

Toluca earned a place in the semifinals with a 3-1 victory over Club Tijuana on Sunday.

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First leg at Nou Camp // Second leg at Estadio Nemesio Diez

León coped well enough with Cruz Azul’s desire to sit back, soak up pressure and wait for the counter during the quarterfinals. This test against the Red Devils presents a modified version of that task: José Cardozo’s side maintains its shape well, but it prefers to pull apart the opposition with its steady work in possession.

The fight over the ball looms as the potential turning point here. Both sides finished in the top four in possession share during the Clausura, according to Opta statistics. The disparate defensive strength of the two outfits – León remains rickety at the back, while Toluca supplements its tidy interplay with the best defense in the league – likely forces León to transform this tie into a high-scoring affair. It worked well enough during the second leg at Estadio Azul, but it might not unfold as helpfully this time around.

(4) Santos Laguna – (6) Pachuca

Enner Valencia fired Pachuca into the last four with a hat trick in Sunday's 4-2 victory at Pumas UNAM.

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First leg at Estadio Hidalgo // Second leg at Estadio Corona

Consistency serves as the primary talking point heading into this tie. Pachuca – as evidenced by the Valencia-led raid at Estadio Olímpico Universitario on Sunday – boasts the ability to rip teams apart on its day. Santos can function in a similar fashion from time to time, but this unit is better suited to march onward with a singular objective in mind with these sorts of stakes in play.

Santos’ tactical discipline – always a strength under Pedro Caixinha – places pressure on Enrique Meza to coax 180 complete minutes out of his side. Pachuca relied on its brilliance on Sunday to escape the potentially devastating effects of Javier Cortés’ late equalizer in midweek. It must now summon the application and the grit necessary to muddle through against the persistent threat posed by Oribe Peralta and tear through the Santos defense when possible.

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