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The Guard1anes 2020 Gala

With 153 regular season matches now in the books, it is time to look back on the best and brightest from a tournament that has given us plenty to cherish.

Leon v Santos Laguna - Torneo Guard1anes 2020 Liga MX Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images

Best Player: Luis Montes

In a league with a large number of expensive foreigners, it is rare to see a local star stand out as clearly as Luis Montes has this term. The diminutive schemer has been the architect behind the magnificent form of runaway leaders León, with the calls for a return to the Mexican National Team growing louder with every virtuoso display. “Chapito” rubber-stamped his retirement from El Tri in September, but at 34 it appears that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Chihuahua-born magician to his team. No one in the division completed more passes in their opponents’ half (586) or made more key passes (57), while he led all midfielders in goal involvements (11) and successful take-ons (23). He was the beating heart of a devastating juggernaut that swept aside all comers on the way to a splendid 40-point regular season.

After years spent flying under the radar, it seems that Montes is finally getting the recognition he deserves. A horrific tibia and fibula fracture sustained shortly before the 2014 World Cup kept the former Pachuca product from leaving a lasting impression in Brazil, but he is making up for lost time in Liga MX. A fourth league title would be the perfect way to culminate a faultless campaign.

Best Signing: Alfredo Talavera

Goalkeeper had long been a problem position for Pumas before this campaign began. Despite being the preferred option between the sticks for a number of years, Alfredo Saldívar’s penchant for costly errors repeatedly hurt his side’s cause, most notably in their 6-1 destruction at the hands of archnemesis América in the second leg of the Apertura 2018 semifinals.

After 173 first-team appearances, the club brass had finally seen enough and set about replacing Saldívar this summer. A host of distinguished shot-stoppers were linked to the vacancy, including Superliga Argentina stalwarts Franco Armani and Martín Campaña. However, the chosen candidate was ultimately ex-Toluca netminder Alfredo Talavera.

The Mexican international’s leadership and calming presence was expected to help solidify a backline that conceded a whopping 19 times in 10 outings during the canceled Clausura 2020, but few could have foreseen just how big of an impact the veteran would have. “Tala” led all keepers in saves inside the box (37) and finished second in total stops (54).

His title-winning experience has been instrumental in a dressing room unaccustomed to success, with Los Universitarios looking like serious challengers for the Guard1anes 2020 crown. Yet, If Pumas are to end this dream season with silverware, they will have to do so without their inspirational netminder. Talavera is set to miss the next 4-6 weeks with a thigh complaint, which should keep him out for the whole Liguilla.

Best Goal: Maximiliano Olivera vs. Pumas (Round 3)

What makes a great goal? Should aesthetic value take precedence over the importance of the strike, or should it be the other way around? Juárez defender Maximiliano Olivera’s fabulous free kick against Pumas combined both of those factors and therefore deserves the nod for best goal.

The South American’s long-range stunner is certainly easy on the eye. He generates both power and a wicked bend on the ball, which crashes against Alfredo Talavera’s left-hand post before nestling in the net. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which Olivera produced his moment of brilliance make his effort even more special.

On a typically torrid Sunday afternoon at Ciudad Universitaria, Bravos had their backs to the wall. The visitors were down to nine men by the 40th minute, and any hopes they had of getting something from a difficult game seemed to disappear when a Carlos González penalty put Pumas 1-0 up early in the second half.

Gabriel Caballero’s charges were undeterred, however, and they persisted in their search for an unlikely equalizer. Their perseverance was rewarded when left-back Olivera, who had only scored 12 goals in 197 professional appearances, stepped up to send the frontier side into ecstasy. Had Juárez succeeded in their ultimately fruitless pursuit of a repechaje spot, the Uruguayan’s slice of set-piece sorcery would have stood out as critical contribution.

Best Manager: Andrés Lillini

The future looked bleak for Pumas at the dawn of this atypical campaign. Any preseason optimism was crushed by the sudden departure of previous head coach Míchel only three days before the opener against Querétaro. A frenzied search for a replacement was undertaken, with club legends Hugo Sánchez and Jorge Campos considered favorites for the job.

As it turned out, this historic institution’s messiah was rather less heralded than those illustrious names. Club Academy Director Andrés Lillini had never overseen a top-flight contest before he was promoted to the CU hot seat, but the Argentinean has proved an inspired choice despite that lack of nous. He has unified a dressing room that could have fractured following Míchel’s exit, with a collective ethos the key reason behind a remarkable season.

Lillini’s powers of persuasion have been crucial, but he is far more than a great man manager. His pragmatism has underpinned a notable defensive improvement, while that same realism has allowed him to develop a cogent attacking strategy that has accentuated the attributes of dynamic forward duo Juan Dinenno and Carlos González. Pumas rarely overelaborate when on the ball, instead preferring to get quality service into their fearsome strike partnership as quickly as possible. That has helped the terrific tandem fill their boots, with 15 goals between them.

Although he has guided Los Universitarios to their best points total since the Apertura 2015, it is still unclear if Lillini will stay on for the Clausura 2021. He would not give a definitive response to that burning question after the exhilarating triumph over Cruz Azul, but that uncertainty only further underlines the merit of his achievements at the helm. Lillini is a developer of young talent first and foremost, and he is likely to return to that role sooner rather than later. Regardless of what happens though, the mark that the 46-year old has made at the senior level will not be soon forgotten.

Best Match: León 3-2 América (Round 14)

Highly anticipated clashes so often flatter to deceive, but this heavyweight battle between Esmeraldas and Águilas proved an exception to the rule. A potential preview of the Guard1anes 2020 Final had everything you could want from a meeting between two of the division’s elite: great goals, comebacks, controversy, even a heated argument between Miguel Herrera and referee César Ramos following the final whistle.

Although León were technically the hosts, their come-from-behind victory was all the more impressive given their vagabond status at the time. The Estadio León had been handed over to Bajío-based businessman Roberto Zermeño just ten days earlier, which left Los Esmeraldas without a home. Necaxa’s Estadio Victoria was used as their temporary place of residence, which eliminated any home-field advantage that could have been conferred to Nacho Ambriz’s troops.

Nevertheless, the neutral site did not prevent Luis Montes and company from showing why they had installed themselves at the top of the table. The midfield maestro conducted an orchestra that played beautiful music throughout the course of the 90 minutes, with each of their three goals the product of a sweet symphony of intricate build-up work. América were a worthy foe, and a meniscus injury suffered by their creative starlet Nicolás Benedetti was the only smudge on an otherwise sparkling evening for Mexican soccer. Hopefully we will see a sequel in the postseason.