Tigres began the year on an eight game undefeated streak, a remarkable run that was capped off by a 5-0 demolishing of Pachuca on September 10th. In the first match played at Estadio Universitario following the horrific attacks at a Monterrey casino, Tigres treated the home fans to their best scoring display of the tournament.
Apertura high point
It may not be as intimidating a venue as Estadio Universitaro, but Pachuca worked their own magic at home this season. A late October 4-0 win over Monterrey completed the best string of games at Estadio Hidalgo in years. After an opening week loss to Santos at home, Pachuca went the rest of the season undefeated in front of their home fans. To put it in complete perspective, Pachuca won seven games this season – with six of those wins coming at Estadio Hidalgo.
After their incredible start to the Apertura, Tigres hit somewhat of a lull midway through the season. A string of less than stellar performances proceeded to knock them down a few places in the standings. One of their most forgettable outings occurred against Chivas at Estadio Jalisco. An early red card to Manuel Viniegra handicapped an already struggling offense, and Tigres went on to lose a 1-0 snoozer.
The high mark for Tigres was also the lowest of lows for the Tuzos. The 0-5 Pachuca loss was embarrassing in every way imaginable. Tigres took control from the opening whistle and never let up. By halftime Pachuca fans were ready to see the game end. It’s really a testament to this Pachuca squad that they were able to bounce back from such a terrible defeat and still make a run to the postseason.
It’s no secret that the strength of this team is defense. With seven shutouts and only thirteen goals conceded in seventeen matches, the Tigres backline has caused fits for every opponent on the schedule. A large measure of the unit’s success can be contributed to the consistency provided by an experienced and disciplined group of players, a consistency best personified by center back Hugo Ayala. Not only has Ayala played every minute of every match for Tigres during the Apertura, he also hasn’t missed a start in the last three seasons.
Player to watch
Believe it or not, the key to a significant portion of Pachuca’s success this season was Enrique Esqueda. Maddeningly inconsistent to the point of driving Club America fans crazy, Esqueda was largely viewed as washed up when he came over to Pachuca this summer. His critics were subsequently served a heaping plate of crow, as Esqueda led the Tuzos in scoring with eight goals during the Apertura.
Nearly three full decades. That’s how long it’s been since Tigres last won a Primera league title. Even the most loyal fan base in Mexico has found the drought painful to bear at times. Some of the more recent Tigres postseason misery was coincidentally brought on by this year’s first round opponent. The last two times Tigres made a trip to the Liguilla finals (in 2001 and 2003), they were beaten by Pachuca.
Tigres fans haven’t forgotten this. When Pachuca enters Estadio Universitario for the first round return leg – already one of the toughest environments for a visiting team in Mexico – you can expect a raucous atmosphere. With a significant home field advantage, and the league’s best defense, this Tigres team is well built to make a deep postseason run. Of course ,we could have made a similar assessment last season, when top-seeded Tigres were unceremoniously deposed by Chivas in the first round.
To avoid a repeat of that fate, Tigres will need a bit of help from the attacking third. Hector Mancilla netted a hat-trick the last time these clubs met, but he hasn’t gotten much consistent service since. Lucas Lobos needs to challenge the Pachuca midfield and act as a creative force, while Danilinho presses in from the wing. Jorge Torres Nilo also has the ability to hurt Pachuca as he comes forward down the left wing.
Whoever steps up, Tigres must regain the attacking form shown in September’s 5-0 win. The Tigres offense sputtered down the stretch, scoring only three goals over their final five matches. Even with an outstanding defense, that scoring rate won’t be near enough to carry this team to the long-awaited title.
It would be easy to write off Pachuca’s chances if you witnessed their regular season debacle against Tigres, but to their credit, the Tuzos have made significant strides since the 0-5 loss. Following that demoralizing outing, Pachuca lost just more in their final nine games, showing the Tigres loss may have been for the better. It was almost as if the experience against Tigres toughened up the team’s collective skin.
In the weeks since, the Pachuca offense has found new life, bolstered by Esqueda‘s impressive run of form. The partnership up top between Esqueda and Felix Borja has proved increasingly productive over the final stretch of the season. Esqueda brings a red-hot scoring touch into the Liguilla, having netted four goals over his last two games. The challenge now will be finding a way to the goal through the fortress that is the Tigres defense.
On their own end, Pachuca will also have to do without a key figure on the backline. Central defender Javier Munoz Mustafa will serve a suspension for the opening match – a match that’s undoubtedly key for any Pachuca success. With a highly unimpressive road record this season, their only hope is to claim a win over Tigres in the first leg at Estadio Hidalgo. Anything less and the Tuzos can go ahead and start making their offseason plans.