The Liguilla is finally here! Here is a brief guide and preview on the four quarterfinal matchups.
1. Rayados vs. 8. Atlas
Rayados (11W-4D-2L) - Make no mistake about it. From start to finish, the best team in Liga MX this season has been Rayados. Antonio “Turco” Mohamed’s men have got the job done in a consistent basis and enter the “Fiesta Grande” on a high after beating rivals Tigres in their final game of the regular season.
Player to watch - Aviles Hurtado is arguably one of the best players in Liga MX. If you thought his move from Tijuana to Monterrey would slow him down, it didn’t. The Colombian international finished the season tied with Mauro Boselli as highest scorer in the league with 12 goals, and possesses what seems an infinite amount of resources on the attack.
Key to victory - The truth is the only thing stopping Monterrey from progressing to the next round is themselves. They have got the best out of Atlas in recent games, and if they play with the same intensity they did all of the regular season, there is no reason why Monterrey shouldn’t make the Semifinals. That said, they do have some injuries to worry about, most notably to center back Cesar Montes, but they have more than enough depth to stay competitive throughout.
Atlas (7W-4D-6L) - Atlas’ search for their first title since 1951 continues. The Rojinegros have the honor of being called the eighth seed of the tournament after managing to squeeze themselves into the Liguilla with a 1-1 draw against Pachuca. That said, Atlas did manage to go unbeaten in their last five league games and being the eighth seed has turned out not to be as unfortunate as it seems in previous seasons.
Player to watch - Milton Caraglio has quietly been one of the most efficient strikers in Liga MX across the last few seasons. The Argentine is one of the best in Mexico with his back towards goal and is a master at playing teammates into space. Perhaps, the only thing that is stopping him from being great is his propensity to miss easy chances, but he does all the little things that make the coach happy.
Key to victory - The Liguilla is a completely different tournament than the regular season. If Atlas can keep a cleansheet at home, anything is possible in the return leg. Coach Jose Guadalupe Cruz, though, has a tendency to play it safe in return legs, which can sometimes prove detrimental to his team.
2. Tigres UANL vs. 7. Club Leon
Tigres (9W-5D-3L) - Tigres are starting to make a tradition out of starting slow and then getting hot when it matters most. This season has been no different. While defeat to Monterrey in their last regular season game has brought out the doubters, Tigres remain one of the favorites to win it all thanks in large part to the strength of their squad.
Player to watch - The fact is when Andre-Pierre Gignac is at his best, Tigres are at their best. Sure, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti has other players like Eduardo Vargas and Enner Valencia at his disposal, but Gignac is the heart of this team. It is not just the goals he scores, when Tigres’ attacking scheme is built around the frenchman, Tigres tend to win games.
Key to victory - It is arguable that, despite finishing in second place, as a squad Tigres haven't been playing at their maximum level. Guido Pizarro’s departure to Sevilla over the summer continues to haunt the team, and for all the attacking options available, Ferretti’s elaborate style of play from the back continues to take a hit. It will be important for Tigres to show a decent level of cohesiveness across their lines if they want to have any chance at challenging for the title.
Leon (8W-2D-7L) - Like Tigres, Leon started the season slow. In fact, they fired their coach midway through the season, replacing Javier Torrente with Gustavo Diaz. With Diaz at the helm, Leon have looked like a completely different team. They did have a few hiccups in the latter part of the season, but if they can replicate their play from a few weeks ago, they have all the potential to be one of the dark horses in the tournament.
Player to watch - It would have been easy to have gone with Mauro Boselli, who finished the season as the golden boot winner with 11 goals or even Elias Hernandez, but a lot of Leon’s future in this tie depends on Luis Montes. The diminutive midfielder is struggling with an injury at the moment, but should see some playing time at one point or another in this tie. If he is healthy, he can be all the difference for Leon.
Key to victory - Believe it or not, it has only been three years since Leon were back-to-back league champions. One of the defining characteristics of that championship team was the play of Elias Hernandez, Luis Montes, and Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez. Obviously, Gallito is no longer with the team, but Elias and Montes still are. It is imperative Elias and Montes show up in this tie if Leon plan on challenging Tigres for a spot in the semifinals
3. Club America vs 6. Cruz Azul
America (9W-3D-5L) - What to make of Club America’s season? At one point, you can argue las Aguilas were the best team in Mexico. Miguel Herrera changed his formation to suit America’s best players and things were looking up in Coapa. Then out of seemingly nowhere, America suffered a sudden decline, including elimination in the Copa MX. Of course, America is America, and if anything, this might be a good omen. This is looking a lot like the season where they last won the league title in 2014.
Player to watch - Oribe Peralta isn’t getting any younger but he continues to be an integral part to this team. When Club America were playing at their best, it was Peralta who was making all the difference leading the line. We know Peralta can score goals, but it his intelligence off the ball the makes him great.
Key to victory - Club America already beat Cruz Azul twice this semester, and all through the squad, they are arguably the better team. Psychologically, they also have an edge. In that regard, it is a matter of playing the game they know and forgetting about the negative results from the last few weeks
Cruz Azul (7W-6D-4L) - Right off the back, it has to be said that a sixth seed has never gone on to win the league title. That probably doesn’t matter too much for Cruz Azul because nobody will be talking about the sixth seed more than the fact that they haven't won the league title in 20 years. This will La Maquina’s first Liguilla in three years and the first under Paco Jemez.
Player to watch - It is easy to always go with attacking players, but Rafael Baca has quietly been one of the most underrated players in Liga MX for some time. The former San Jose Earthquakes man has been a huge part in Paco Jemez’s system, and when he gets things working in the midfield, Cruz Azul look as composed as ever.
Key to victory - For obvious reasons, all eyes will be on the coach Paco Jemez. The Liguilla is nothing like the Spanish manager has experienced in the past, and it will be interesting to see what kind of gameplan he can conjure up. As the saying goes, Clasicos are won, and if Cruz Azul stay tight defensively and manage to get on the scoresheet, they might just cause the upset.
4. Monarcas Morelia vs 5. Toluca
Monarcas Morelia (8W-5D-4L) - After suffering a relegation scare last season, Roberto Hernandez’s men are back in the Liguilla. The Purepechas have gone under the radar for most of the season, yet they had the third best defense in the league and finished with the best record away from home.
Player to watch - Fresh out of qualifying to the World Cup with Peru, Raul Ruidiaz continues to be a fundamental part to this Monarcas Morelia team. Last season, the striker wasn’t 100% healthy in the Liguilla, but this time he is up for it and looking to make his mark in the Fiesta Grande.
Key to victory - For one reason or another, Monarcas Morelia were better away from home this season than at the Estadio Morelos. Also, historically speaking the Estadio Nemesio Diez is a venue in which Morelia generally flourish. Victories are not written on paper, but if you can get results away from home, you are giving yourself a pretty good chance to progress.
Toluca (8W-5D-4L) - If there is one thing Toluca have in common with Monarcas Morelia is that they, too, traditionally go under the radar. Toluca have been a common staple in recent decades, but lately it seems like their fire always runs out in the Liguilla. To summarize their regular season, it’s been one full of inconsistencies. Nonetheless, they have a talented squad and young coach like Hernan Cristante, who is ready to surpass their semifinal appearance from last season.
Player to watch - There is a lot of great strikers in Mexico and Fernando Uribe is another one. Uribe is not your tallest striker but he possesses all the necessary skills a modern forward should have in this day and age. Neutralizing him is always difficult, and as such, Monarcas Morelia will have a tough time dealing with the Colombian.
Key to victory - Toluca have had trouble competing against the better teams in the league, but a good result at home could prove vital going forward. Perhaps from all the matchups in this Liguilla, the first leg in this one will say the most about where this tie is heading.