On Wednesday night Jaguares could come one step closer to adding another chapter to an already improbable story. The Copa Libertadores debutants take on Emelec in Ecuador and should the team out of Chiapas pick up all three points, they will open up a five-point gap over Emelec in Group 6, virtually assuring them qualification.
When the groups were drawn, this always looked like the battle for second place, though Jaguares surprisingly find themselves two points clear of Internacional at the top, albeit having played one more game than the defending champions.. In addition to all-important battle for points, this matchup will also see the second round of a clash between two of the most promising young coaches in Latin America in Emelec's Omar Asad and Jaguares' José Guadalupe Cruz.
The two teams squared off in Mexico in the previous round of group play, with Jaguares coming out 2-1 victors thanks to some sloppy Emelec defending. Francisco Javier Torres scored from the spot and young star Antonio Salazar added a second. Argentine striker Cristian Menéndez pulled one back for Emelec with a clever finish, but it wasn't enough.
This week's matchup could be crucial for the Ecuadorians, as it represents their last home game of the group stage. In three week's time they travel to Bolivia's Jorge Wilstermann, at altitude before traveling to Brazil to face Internacional. Jaguares should be aware of Emelec's capabilities at home, though. The Ecuadorian side found a last minute equalizer against Internacional for a 1-1 draw and shut out Jorge Wilstermann 1-0 in their previous two Libertadores home games.
Furthermore, Emelec will be able to give it their all in the upcoming game, with the Ecuadorian federation having postponed their upcoming league game with CSD Independiente to a later date. Emelec did suffer their first loss of the season this past weekend at El Nacional after fielding a weakened team, but have started off the season well and will be looking to carry their near-perfect home form into this crucial Libertadores match.
Jaguares' domestic campaign, however, has been disappointingly poor, as they sit rock bottom of Group C with eight points, having picked up just four points in their last five league games. In addition, they haven't won an away game in the league since beating Necaxa on the opening day of the season, but their 2-0 Copa Libertadores qualifying victory at Alianza Lima will certainly give the Mexicans the confidence they need to travel to and win in South America.
If Jaguares are to do what is asked of them and win in Ecuador, they will have to do so without key defender Ismael Fuentes and forward Julio Frias, who will both miss the trip through injury. However, with Libertadores-winner Damián Manso in the lineup and the team able to count on young talent such as Antonio Salazar, they should not be found wanting in attack. Rather, Emelec will come looking to score right out of the gates, and the outcome of this match could very well rest on the shoulders of how Jaguares copes with the loss of Fuentes in defense. This could lead Cruz to field a more defensive formation, though with 4-4-1-1 and 4-5-1 often the norm for Cruz's Jaguares, the shape is already there and it will be more a question of mentality.
Emelec, on the other hand can count on a clean bill of health. Marcelo Fleitas (shown above playing for Ecuador) and Walter Montero are key returning members of the defense and will surely help the Ecuadorians avert some of the costly errors that hounded them in Mexico. In addition, first-choice goalkeeper Javier Klimowicz, midfielders David Quiroz, Pedro Quiñónez, Fernando Giménez and foward Cristián Menéndez all come in to the game having been rested on the weekend. This will give Asad, highly successful in Argentina with Godoy Cruz, a variety of options when selecting his formation, likely to be very attacking-minded, which shone through on occasion in Mexico.
With Emelec possessing home-field advantage and a healthier, fresher squad, it is only natural for them to be considered the favorites. Emelec can make a huge statement by scoring in the opening stage of the game and forcing Jaguares to chase the game early, so it is vitally important that the Mexican squad keeps cool in what is sure to be a raucous Estadio George Capwell and sees the opening minutes out. The road to qualification was never going to be easy for Jaguares, but this game presents the clearest opportunity for them to go out and make themselves a force to be reckoned with in the Copa Libertadores.