Mexico’s Primera Division kicks off its postseason tournament on Saturday with top-seeded Chivas Guadalajara making their first trip of the season to Querétaro. FOXSoccer.com contributor Eben Lehman has the first of four weekend previews.
No matter how appalling Club America was this season, a rivalry is a rivalry. When Chivas posted a decisive 3-1 victory at Estadio Azteca in October, they demonstrated the ability to come through on the biggest stage. The intensity of the Clasico rivalry is the perfect preparatory test for a Liguilla campaign. And Chivas passed with flying colors.
Apertura high point
With just one half left to play, Queretaro’s season hung by a thread. Anything less than a win in their final game versus Tecos and the Gallos Blancos would be packing up their lockers. Instead of folding under pressure, Queretaro pounded in three goals in the game’s final period to get the win and extend their season. The victory was also a historic moment for the club, as it booked Queretaro’s first Liguilla appearance in franchise history.
Even with a high seed locked up, Chivas still wanted an impressive finish the regular season. Carrying a second half lead, goalkeeper Luis Michel tangled briefly with Pachuca defender Javier Munoz Mustafa. Michel stuffed the ball in his face and was rewarded with a red card. Pachuca ended up grabbing a 90th minute goal for the draw, and a few days later Michel was handed a three game suspension.
While things ended on a high note, Quertaro’s Apertura journey wasn’t a smooth one. The team took a big hit in early October, dropping a match at home to Santos. It was a day the Gallos would like to forget, as two Santos goals in the opening eight minutes quickly set the tone for the rest of the game. The loss may have ended up acting as a wakeup call, though, as Queretaro’s defense finished the season with a string of impressive performances.
Unfortunately for Chivas fans, their most important player for this first round series is also the most inexperienced. Michel’s suspension means backup goalkeeper Victor Hugo Hernandez steps into the net. The pressure will be unbelievably intense for a player who’s seen just 36 minutes of action this season. While Hernandez can’t match the talent of Michel, he needs to focus on avoiding any costly unforced errors.
Player to watch
Any Queretaro postseason success will be dictated by the play of Carlos Bueno. The veteran striker has an experienced nose for the goal and finished as one of the league’s top scorers. Bueno will no doubt be the primary focus of the Chivas defense in the opening round.
For a number one seed, Chivas have a surprising amount of factors conspiring against them. The dark cloud known as the “superlider curse” hangs ominously overhead, reminding Chivas fans that the top seeds in the last three tournaments all fell in the first round. It’s a stat Chivas knows well, being the upstart number-eight seed that knocked off Tigres six months ago.
A bigger issue for Chivas is of course the loss of Luis Michel. Without Michel – possibly the best goalkeeper in Mexico – the team’s defense will have to step up. The onus falls mainly on Hector Reynoso and Jonny Magallon to protect backup keeper Hernandez from seeing too much action.
Chivas are also unlucky to face an eight-seed with confidence that far exceeds their place in the standings. Queretaro broke into the Liguilla with an inspiring win in their final game of the regular season. They also carry an extra hop in their step knowing they can beat Chivas. Queretaro’s 1-0 win over Guadalajara back on October 1st takes care of any doubt that this will be a competitive series.
The return of Omar Arellano from injury may give Chivas a needed boost. Although, the recent scoring tear of Erick “Cubo” Torres (five goals in five games to end the season) is probably all that is needed for Chivas to break the curse and advance to the semifinals.
Queretaro may not always play the most attractive style of football, but they still find a way to win important games. At the end of the season, this was mainly due to the team’s improved defensive play. With three shutouts in their last four games, the Queretaro backline is coming together at just the right time.
At the other end, Bueno looks to put some pressure on an inexperienced opposing goalkeeper. The loss of Luis Michel really cannot be overstated. Without Michel to cover for defensive mistakes, Bueno and the Queretaro attack have a great chance to steal a win in the opening match at La Corregidora. And with all the pressure weighing down their opponents, Queretaro should open the postseason playing loose, unburdened by any expectations.