It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. That famous axiom has been applied to a host of situations, and it perfectly describes the key to success in Liga MX. The regular season is little more than an extended warmup for the liguilla, which makes arriving at that decisive stage of the campaign in top form of paramount importance.
Santos seem to have heard that message loud and clear. Sunday’s comfortable 2-0 win over Tijuana was Los Guerreros third-straight success, and they now sit just one point behind 8th-placed Chivas. With the playoffs fast approaching, the Northerners are picking up steam at the perfect time.
That the six-time champions are in with a shout of adding another trophy to their cabinet is testament to the acumen of head coach Guillermo Almada. The Uruguayan has had to compensate for the long-term absence of fellow countryman Brian Lozano, who has not played a single minute after fracturing the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a pre-season practice.
“El Huevo” was the star turn in Almada’s setup, and Santos initially looked lost without him. Two wins from the opening ten games was a disappointing return for the Apertura 2019 superlíder, but the unexpected redemption of prodigal son Gael Sandoval has helped to put that bad run in the rearview mirror.
A gifted creative midfielder, Sandoval drew the interest of AS Roma before he even made his top-flight debut with Los Laguneros in 2013. A subsequent loan spell with FC Juárez allowed the talented youngster to hone his skills, and he returned to his parent club with a bang in 2016-17. Sandoval’s excellent performances saw him named Liga MX newcomer of the year, and a $3 million move to Chivas followed in November 2017.
However, “El Italiano” failed to live up to the hype with El Rebaño Sagrado. The Guadalajara-born attacker never established himself as a consistent starter in his native city and was shipped out to Bravos in January after collecting just five goals and six assists over 55 appearances. That second stint in Chihuahua was disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic, and the 24-year old’s career was in danger of stagnating before Santos took a punt on him this summer.
Although he was on the periphery until recently, the past few weeks have served as a timely reminder of Sandoval’s ability. He marked his first league start since last Halloween with a spectacular volley in the 2-1 triumph over Toluca and another powerful strike opened the scoring against Tijuana.
It is too early to say whether or not Sandoval can replace Lozano’s all-action influence on the left, but his presence has certainly awoken a previously dormant Julio Furch. The lanky Argentine has struck only twice this tournament but was back to his disruptive best against Xolos. The visiting defense could not handle the front man’s bruising physicality or clever link play, with a pair of assists just reward for a sparkling showing.
Things are certainly looking rosy for Santos, and they have every chance of climbing further up the standings before the postseason commences. A trip to leaders León is the only daunting fixture on a calendar that includes home duels with Pachuca, Mazatlán and basement boys San Luis. Victory in those three contests would increase the sense that Sandoval and company could yet provide a happy ending to a story marked by a turbulent beginning.