It took every minute of all 17 rounds of play, but when the dust settled from this weekend’s action in Mexico, we got our first glimpse of this season’s Liguilla field. The final eight teams competing for the Clausura 2011 title will be: Tigres, Pumas, Morelia, Atlante, Cruz Azul, America, Monterrey, and Chivas. It shapes up to be a fantastic field, with nearly all of Mexico's biggest and most well-supported clubs together in the same postseason. Before we look ahead, let’s take a look back at the biggest games from Round 17, and see how we arrived at this season’s final eight championship contenders.
Ayovi Bomb Rescues Rayados
It took an improbable shot in the game's dying moments, but on Saturday night Monterrey earned a much-needed road victory over Chivas to finally lock down a return trip to the postseason. The defending champions ended up with the win, but it was actually Chivas who looked to be the better side in the game’s early going. Just minutes into the match, Chivas striker Erick Torres used his head to perfectly set up Marco Fabian for an immediate lead. It was the perfect start for a Chivas team that was also fighting hard for a result, as a win could potentially move them as high as number 4 in the postseason seedings.
Monterrey weathered the early storm, though, and after a blast from Ricardo Osorio things were all square heading into the halftime break. In the second half, Monterrey grabbed the lead by taking advantage of a major Chivas blunder. Left back Miguel Ponce played an incredibly ill-conceived back pass directly to Monterrey’s Jesus Zavala, who finished easily for the 2-1 Rayados lead. Chivas weren’t done, though. Later in the half Marco Fabian struck again for Chivas, using a well placed pass from Alberto Medina to bring the scoreline back level. Just when it looked like the two teams were headed for a 2-2 draw, Walter Ayovi dropped a bomb. A few seconds into stoppage time, Ayovi received a ball on the edge of the center circle, took a couple steps, and unleashed an amazing 40-yard shot that fell into the corner of the net. It was a goal for the ages, and an incredible way for the defending champions to finally clinch a playoff berth. It certainly wasn’t easy, but you have to credit Monterrey for successfully navigating an increasingly difficult final few weeks of the season. With Liguilla qualification still in doubt, they managed to win the CONCACAF Champions League and follow it up with a road win in the final weekend to qualify for the domestic postseason. Things don’t get any easier for Monterrey, though. They now must face a very difficult first round series against Pumas, who despite a #2 seed are still the team to beat in the postseason.
Saturday’s loss was a disappointing end to the regular season for Chivas. Done in by mistakes and unforced errors, the loss drops the team to the Liguilla’s final #8 seed. Nonetheless, Chivas can celebrate a return trip to the postseason after missing out on the playoffs entirely in the Apertura.
Tigres Shut Down Atlas
Fittingly, it was another masterful performance by the Tigres defense, who led the way to a decisive 3-0 victory over Atlas on Saturday night. In reality, Atlas never had a chance, as Tigres were just the better team on this day. Hector Mancilla scored minutes into the match, and when Lucas Lobos added a second goal just after halftime, Atlas were effectively done. Atlas are now left thinking about what might have been in a season that started with such promise, but ends again without a postseason appearance.
The shut out victory was a perfect end to the regular season for Tigres, as the play of the backline has led the way for this team all year. In fact, the Tigres defensive performance this season was a historical one. The nine total goals conceded are the lowest number in history by any team in a 17 game season (surpassing the Pumas 2010 Bicentenario season total of ten goals conceded). Tigres also finish the season with three straight shutouts, bringing their total to an astounding eleven shutouts on the season. The team’s incredible defensive strength will make them a very tough out in the postseason, where they will try to overcome the superleader curse and defeat #8 seed Chivas in the opening round.
Atlante Cruise into Postseason
With the loss by Atlas concluding before their own match on Saturday night, Atlante knew they had a Liguilla spot locked up even with a loss. The team still had seeding to play for, though, and showed incredible focus with an important 2-1 win over visiting Toluca. Giancarlo Maldonado got the Potros off to a great start, knocking in a header off a pass from Francisco Fonseca, and Atlante never looked back. It was a great team effort, and the 2-1 win will serve as a perfect momentum-building victory heading into the postseason.
For Toluca, it was a disappointing end to an ultimately forgettable season. Riding high in the early weeks of the Clausura, Toluca’s ride ended up crashing in flames by season’s end. After going undefeated through the first six games of the season (a stretch in which they conceded just one total goal), things quickly unraveled. Directly following this opening stretch, the Toluca defense completely fell apart, conceding thirteen goals in just three matches. The team’s inconsistent play was summed up in last weekend’s game against Tecos, in which the Red Devils took a 4-0 lead at home and proceeded to give up four goals in the second half. Toluca are now left to regroup and lick their many wounds during the long offseason.
For Atlante, the victory on Saturday proved immensely important, as it moves the team all the way up to the #4 seed in the Liguilla. A top four position gives Atlante the tiebreaker as better seed in their first round series against Cruz Azul. The victory also means Atlante are a team that must be taken seriously in the postseason. The Potros have not lost in their last five games, and as we’ve seen in the past, it’s usually the hottest teams who make the deepest postseason runs in Mexico.
Aguilas Take Down Pumas
In the final game of the regular season – a Sunday afternoon battle between crosstown rivals Pumas and America – viewers witnessed the weekend's most surprising result. On the road against the league's best team, America withstood a fierce Pumas attack and came away with an impressive 2-0 win. With Pumas coming forward in waves, it was much-maligned America goalkeeper Memo Ochoa who managed to keep his team in the game during the first half. Pumas controlled most of the action, while America sat back waiting for the counter attack. With the game still scoreless in the second half, America finally broke through with a header from Vicente Vuoso, a goal which proved to be the game winner. Angel Reyna added a stoppage time score for the final margin, bringing his personal total to thirteen goals on the season. Reyna's late goal capped an incredible individual season in which his scoring total gives him a decisive victory in the race for the league's golden boot. America's two goals on Sunday also leave them tied with Morelia as the two top scoring teams in the league. Reyna and the rest of the America attack will need to keep scoring at this pace if they want to make a successful run in the Liguilla.
On the other side, the Pumas loss – just their second of the year – drops them to the #2 overall seed in the postseason where they will open against Monterrey. It was a somewhat disappointing end to what had been a dominant season, but despite their seed Pumas are no doubt still the team to beat in Mexico.
Round 17 Scoreboard
Estudiantes 1 – 3 Santos
Jaguares 4 - 1 Queretaro
Chivas 2 - 3 Monterrey
Tigres 3 - 0 Atlas
Pachuca 1 - 1 Necaxa
San Luis 0 - 0 Cruz Azul
Atlante 2 - 1 Toluca
Puebla 0 - 2 Morelia
Pumas 0 - 2 America
Liguilla First Round Matchups
#1 Tigres vs. #8 Chivas
#2 Pumas vs. #7 Monterrey
#3 Morelia vs. #6 America
#4 Atlante vs. #5 Cruz Azul