The reign of El Norte continues. Just a few weeks back, we discussed how the northern region of Mexico - specifically the corridor running from Torreon to Monterrey - was the new center of the national football landscape. At this point it’s almost impossible to even argue otherwise, as the current postseason has put any lingering doubts to bed. The ascendency of the two northern cities was only further confirmed over the past week, as Santos, Monterrey, and Tigres all advanced to the Liguilla semifinals.
The three northern giants join Club America in what promises to be a highly entertaining knockout round between four talented and very deserving teams. Below we break down each of the final four clubs ahead of this week’s semifinal round, which begins on Wednesday night.
Santos Laguna, #1 seed (defeated Jaguares by 6-4 agg. score)
The Santos Green Machine kept on rolling through the opening round, scoring six goals in two games against Jaguares (and putting to bed the pesky superlider curse in the process). With an absolute embarrassment of attacking weapons up front, there's a reason this squad was the league’s highest scoring team during the 2012 Clausura. Santos has been playing at an especially high level over the second half of the season, losing just once over the last nine weeks of league play.
In the opening round Jaguares tried to top Santos in a shootout, which ultimately proved to be a fool’s errand. Led by Oribe Peralta, the Santos attack was just too much to handle over two games. Peralta has been on fire in recent weeks, scoring four goals in his last three matches. When he’s hitting his target, Santos almost become unbeatable. Up next is Tigres, which gives the fans in Torreon a chance at some much-desired revenge for the finals loss last December. Tigres are certainly a tougher defensive side than Chiapas, but even the current title holders will find it difficult to slow down a Guerreros attack that at the moment seems to be firing on all cylinders.
Monterrey, #2 seed (defeated Tijuana by 4-3 agg. score)
Monterrey obviously knows what it takes to navigate knockout tournaments. This is a Rayados team that has won two league titles since 2009, as well as the last two CONCACAF Champions League crowns. That experience paid off in the opening round, as Monterrey gutted out a tough, hard fought 4-3 aggregate victory over Tijuana. When it comes to Monterrey's success, there’s always a lot of talk about the two big guns up front: Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris. Against Tijuana, though, it was Angel Reyna who came up big in the opening match. Reyna played a key role in both goals scored in that crucial 2-1 road win. Unfortunately for the Rayados, he was sent off in the second leg and as a result will not be taking the field on Wednesday against Club America.
What Monterrey doesn't lack is the confidence to go into the Estadio Azteca and come away with a win. Earlier this season they took down America in a shootout, scoring three goals to pull out an important road win (overcoming two goals from Christian Benitez in the process). A victory on the road in the first leg of the semifinals would be especially monumental, as this Monterrey team has not dropped a match at home all season.
Club America, #3 seed (defeated Pachuca by 3-2 agg. score)
Club America was the only one out of the four semifinalists to suffer a loss in the quarterfinal round. After a big 3-1 road victory in the opening leg, they turned in an uninspiring effort at home against Pachuca on Saturday. The 0-1 loss was more than enough for America to advance to the next round, but could also be cause for a bit of concern. With a big lead, America obviously could afford to play it safe against Pachuca. The overly conservative approach, though, may have dinged the team’s collective confidence and killed much of their forward momentum. Especially of note was the performance of Christian Benitez on Saturday. The star striker had a disaster of a game in terms of finishing, missing several easy chances to put the series away. The big question now is can Benitez -- and the rest of the team -- flip the switch back on and come out guns blazing against Monterrey?
UANL Tigres, #5 seed (defeated Morelia by 5-1 agg. score)
Last season Tigres rode the play of their formidable backline all the way to the title. The Apertura postseason was defined by the Tigres defense, a unit that earned five straight shutouts on their march to the trophy. While the 2012 team may not be quite as strong defensively as last tournament (a feat that would be hard to match), Tigres are still built to make another run at the championship.
Tigres enter the semifinals with great momentum, coming off an impressive road win over Morelia. As a lower seed, Tigres were the only one of the four remaining teams that played on the road last weekend. Playing under significantly more pressure than the top three seeds, Tigres easily met the challenge. Anchored by Hugo Ayala and backed up by in-form goalkeeper Enrique Palos, Tigres held #4 seed Morelia to just one goal over the two games. Now an even bigger challenge awaits, with Santos looming in the semifinals. Just over two weeks ago, the speed of Santos gave Tigres fits in a 0-3 road loss in Torreon. Significant adjustments will have to be made ahead of Thursday’s match in Monterrey, a must win game if Tigres want a real shot at repeating as league champions.