When the Monarcas Morelia players exited an empty Estadio Jalisco on January 8th following a loss to Club Atlas, they had already been written off as non-factors for the Clausura 2011 season. There was no crowd noise that night (Atlas fan violence in the final game of the Apertura led to a spectator ban), but the eerie echoes of their celebrating opponents lingered behind, mocking Morelia as they walked off the field.
In that opening game of the season, Morelia was dominated by Atlas and thoroughly embarrassed to the tune of a 5-0 defeat. It was just one match, but judging by the reactions it may well have been the whole season. Just 90 minutes into the 2011 Clausura and the Monarcas were already thrown into the trash heap of Mexican football irrelevance.
Fast forward two months and we have an entirely different picture. Morelia enters week 10 of the season in second place in the league standings, on a four game winning streak, and undefeated since that opening night embarrassment. No longer flying under the radar, Morelia has positioned themselves as legitimate title contenders.
On Sunday they get the chance to make a definitive statement about their true place in this year’s title race. Morelia will face a Pumas side that is undefeated and currently the best team in Mexico. In a weekend featuring not one but two clasicos, it would take an absolute powerhouse of a match-up to claim top game of the round.
Well, this may be just the match.
The Morelia vs. Pumas match-up features the top two teams in Group 3, the top two teams in the overall league standings, the two top scoring teams in Mexico, and two teams with only one total loss between them on the year. When these two sides meet on Sunday afternoon at Estadio Morelos the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Unfortunately, Morelia will likely be missing a few crucial pieces. Manager Tomas Boy will again be absent from the sideline as he serves the second game of his two-match suspension for actions against the officials. More devastating for Morelia, though, would be the loss of striker Miguel Sabah, who appears doubtful with a muscle tweak picked up in last week's win over Toluca.
Morelia’s 6-1 win last weekend over a slumping Toluca side was a tour de force in and of itself, but Sunday’s match against Pumas will be a much tougher test. Pumas are the most balanced team in the league, and bring strength to almost every position. Not only are they the second-highest scoring team in the league (with 19 total goals, two behind Morelia), they are also one of the top defensive units. Pumas have conceded just eight goals on the year, better than all but three teams in the league. The play of the backline seems to improve each week, with the team allowing just two goals in their last five games. On the other end of the field Morelia will be trying to contain the talented attacking trio of Martin Bravo, Dante Lopez, and Paco Palencia. With a backline that is susceptible to unforced errors, Morelia will have their work cut out for them trying to mark every component of the Pumas attack.
For Morelia to win, they’ll surely need to score multiple goals. Without Sabah in the lineup the scoring load falls squarely on the shoulders of Rafael Marquez. The Morelia striker is certainly capable, as he is coming off a hat-trick in last weekend’s win. Alongside Marquez will likely be Luis Gabriel Rey, who would take the place of Sabah in the starting lineup if needed.
With two incredibly talented attacking teams, casual fans can only hope for an offensive shootout. If Pumas can weather the storm and remain undefeated, they will put a lot of distance between themselves and the rest of Group 3. In interviews this week, Pumas players reminded everyone that their real goal is a championship, not an undefeated record. Pumas goalkeeper Alejandro Palacios stated that the team is "not concerned with losing the unbeaten streak." While a loss this weekend wouldn’t necessarily take Pumas any further away from their end goal, it would certainly mean something to Morelia. After such as disastrous start, moving all the way up the standings from worst to first would be quite an achievement on its own. A win would also bring them one giant step past any lingering misery from the season’s opening match.
Monarcas Morelia vs. Pumas UNAM, Sunday at 2pm est, TV Azteca