Club León earns Liguilla reprieve as Clausura concludes

Luis Montes scored the goal to ultimately cinch Club León's place in the Liguillla.

Miguel Tovar/STF/LatinContent/Getty Images

Club León entered the final weekend of the Clausura with its title defense hanging by a thread. The distractions presented by the Copa Libertadores ended in the round of 16 with a midweek exit to Bolivar, but their impact exerted a painful toll on the domestic considerations well before that juncture.

León placed its focus on its South American journey and suffered the repercussions. Their predicament heading into the final weekend left their fate in the hands of others. And the Apertura winners needed to win at Club Tijuana to even provide their adversaries with a chance to slip up later in the weekend.

Few teams depart Estadio Caliente with points in hand. Chiapas left Tijuana with all three points in February to end the Xolos’ 13-match domestic unbeaten run on home soil. César Farias’ side merely responded by ripping off three consecutive victories to restore their home dominance and strengthen their playoff claims.

Those exploits did not deter a motivated León side, though. Sebastián Maz collected Eisner Loboa’s low diagonal and tucked it inside the near post to take the lead after 16 minutes. Luis Montes doubled the advantage after 66 minutes with an enterprising run through midfield and a rasping finish inside the far corner. Nacho González awkwardly poked Cristian Pellerano’s attempted cross into his own net nine minutes from time, but the late riposte did not ultimately unwind the visitors.

The final whistle prolonged León’s chances for another day and relegated the champions to a nervous wait to see how the weekend would unfold. Atlas, Guadalajara and Morelia all possessed the opportunity to knock León out of the Liguilla with a victory and render those last-gasp efforts irrelevant.

One by one, the potential interlopers dropped out of the chase. Atlas fell behind to Tigres, recovered to equalize through Jahir Barraza and then watched Alan Pulido snatch the winner in the final quarter of an hour to slip to a 2-1 defeat to Tigres on Saturday night. Morelia never got that far at Puebla on Sunday afternoon. Matías Alustiza scored early and Mario de Luna and Carlos Sánchez tallied late to propel Puebla a 3-1 win and send Monarcas home for the spring.

Only Guadalajara stood between León and the Liguilla by Sunday night. Chivas and Monterrey navigated through the first half at Estadio Omnilife without a goal. The tense affair marched through the second with no relief in sight for the expectant observers in León. Efraín Juarez finally provided the desired solace when he headed home Humberto Suazo’s corner six minutes from time to dispatch Ricardo La Volpe’s side and seal León’s place in the top eight.

The seven other sides involved in the Liguilla – and top-seeded Cruz Azul, in particular – will not share those sentiments. León presents a dangerous threat even after its domestic struggles during the Clausura. The endangered title defense received new life over the weekend. Now it is down to the champions to decide what to do with it as the quarterfinals approach in midweek.

(1) Cruz Azul – (8) Club León

First leg at Nou Camp // Second leg at Estadio Azul

This enticing pairing offers a contrast in styles with León functioning primarily in possession (54 percent in its 17 Clausura matches, tops in Liga MX, according to Opta statistics) and Cruz Azul preferring to move quickly through midfield. If La Máquina can find space for its creative schemers in the right areas, then this tie could tip in its favor.

(2) Toluca – (7) Club Tijuana

First leg at Estadio Caliente // Second leg at Estadio Nemesio Diez

Expect the Xolos to place significant emphasis on procuring a good result in the first leg at home. Tijuana’s putrid away form (one win in its past 23 attempts in domestic play) leaves little room for encouragement against the organized Red Devils at La Bombonera. Look for Toluca to rely on its dogged rearguard (best in Liga MX with 14 goals conceded) and wait for the right opening to pounce.

(3) Pumas UNAM – (6) Pachuca

First leg at Estadio Hidalgo // Second leg at Estadio Olímpico Universitario

Both sides return to the Liguilla after missing out during the Apertura. The two teams played to a 0-0 draw in Mexico City back in March, but their goalscoring records and the presence of the top two plunderers in Liga MX during the Clausura (Pachuca’s Enner Valencia with 13, Pumas’ Martín Bravo with nine) suggests more output over these two legs.

(4) Santos Laguna – (5) Club América

First leg at Estadio Azteca // Second leg at Estadio Corona

Santos Laguna has won the past three meetings between the sides, including a 4-2 victory at Estadio Azteca in March. That record may come under threat in a two-game series with both sides capable of breaking quickly and creating opportunities. América must maintain its resolute defensive core (Santos has scored 30 of its 33 goals from inside the penalty area, per Opta) and subdue Oribe Peralta to have a chance to overturn its recent misfortune against Santos.