Chivas, America take center stage

Former C.D. Guadalajara defender Francisco Rodríguez adopted a pragmatic stance when asked about the rancorous reception ahead of him Sunday night’s El Súper Clásico at Estadio Omnilife.

The former Chivas hero made the fiscally prudent and naturally controversial choice to sign for hated rivals Club América when he returned to Mexico from German side VfB Stuttgart earlier this year.

Players cross the divide between the two largest clubs in the country from time to time, but Maza’s belated defection stung. Rodríguez established himself as a fixture with El Tri during his time in Guadalajara and led Chivas to its last title back in 2006 before moving to PSV Eindhoven two years later. His decision to join América rendered an uncomfortable verdict on the relative strength of the clubs and served as a rather humiliating rebuke to a proud organization.

As the Mexico captain fielded queries about his contentious role in this upcoming derby, he replied with a rather matter-of-fact response: he said he will take the field to play against 11 opponents, not the disapproving supporters.

Such levelheaded behavior does not reconcile with Rodríguez’s recent actions – including his display of one-fingered disgust after Mexico’s 0-0 draw with Jamaica last month – or the passion of El Súper Clásico. Tensions always run high ahead of the most anticipated match on the Liga MX calendar, even if several thousand attendees plan to do the Harlem Shake before kickoff.

Chivas can afford to dance for a few moments before the game after claiming victory in the last meeting between the clubs (3-1 at Estadio Azteca in October) and cobbling together a nine-match unbeaten run (including a 1-1 draw with Tigres last weekend) to move into contention for a Liguilla berth. Despite the peculiar circumstances surrounding his appointment on the eve of the campaign and a handful of injuries along the way, Benjamin Galindo has somehow navigated this seasoned group into the upper half of the table.

Most of those critical figures will feature at some stage now that Marco Fabián (knee) and Héctor Reynoso (hamstring) are back in the squad. Reynoso’s inclusion looms as a last-minute decision, yet Fabián’s health could prove more important in a match that could yield goals. The clever operator missed out on a place in the last Mexico squad as he honed his fitness and his form. His potent work in the final third still provides the required supply for Rafael Márquez Lugo and Miguel Sabah.

Márquez Lugo, in particular, presents a problem América must solve. The veteran forward has scored 11 times in 24 appearances since joining Chivas from Morelia at the start of the Apertura. His constant movement and ruthless instincts in front of goal could provide the difference on a night likely to yield plenty of chances.

América boss Miguel Herrera can count on the likes of Christian Benítez and Raúl Jiménez to issue any required response at the other end and stop the recent wobbles afflicting the title chasers. A run of one win in five outings has reduced the margin of error (current leaders Atlas now sit five points ahead after a 2-1 win at Cruz Azul on Saturday night) and has turned this game into an important marker in América’s push for top spot heading into the Liguilla.

The front two – reinforced by the creativity contributed by playmaker Osvaldo Martínez and the width supplied by wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Adrián Aldrete – creates a host of concerns for opposing defenders. Benítez faces lingering questions about his temperament (he reacted poorly when substituted in the 1-1 draw against San Luis last weekend), but his considerable physical attributes always make him a threat inside the penalty area. Jiménez earned a place in the Mexico squad with his ability to stretch defenses and his recent displays in the final third.

All of the talk about América’s prolific attack (second in Liga MX with 21 goals in 11 matches) rather obscures the defiant work usually submitted at the back. Herrera faces selection issues in that department with Diego Reyes suspended after his dismissal last weekend, but he possesses enough options – including captain Aquivaldo Mosquera if deemed fit enough to feature after linking up with Colombia – to adjust to the absence of the future FC Porto center back.

And with América’s rearguard uncertain heading into this high-profile affair, the focus once again settles on Rodríguez and the magnitude of the task ahead of him against his old club. He must divert the pressure elsewhere to emerge with the desired result for his new side and silence those vociferous detractors when full time arrives.