After 11 rounds were completed in the current Apertura season, Necaxa sat dead last in the league table with a record of 2W, 2D, 7L, good for a grand total of 8 points to go along with a league-worst -10 goal difference. Not to mention, they had just dropped their fifth consecutive match to the hands of Puebla in the Estadio Victoria. Profe Pepe Cruz had just coached his third game and things weren’t looking good in any way.
But then came their Round 12 match in the Estadio Olímpico Universitario. In their visit to high-flyer Pumas, they took the lead from the 16th minute all the way up to about 20 minutes to go in the match, when star Dinenno found a way to even things up. The match ended 1-1, and Necaxa had found a way to get a point on the road against a top-4 squad. After that, Profe Cruz’s squad won the five remaining games on their schedule to not only clinch a repechaje spot, but finish in the 10th spot overall, just one point out of the top 8. It’s worth noting they faced three bottom-6 teams (Atlas, Tijuana, Querétaro) in that span, as well as Toluca and Pachuca. However, it’s never a simple feat to win five in a row, much less with the added pressure of a playoff birth on the line.
On the other hand, we have Chivas, the home team in this matchup and 7th ranked overall. The Rebaño had a rocky start to the season, but since Vucetich’s arrival in Round 5, they went on to a very solid record of 6W, 4D, 3L in his 13 games in charge (including the last two matches he was away due to his positive COVID test back at the end of October). They went on to have a relatively good season, with ups-and-downs just like pretty much anyone, and while they defeated teams such as Tigres and Rayados, they were unable to conquer must-win games such as Querétaro and Tijuana, teams who play very physical football.
Why do those two draws with Querétaro and Tijuana matter? Their physical style is similar to Necaxa’s who I would dare say play a little extra physical than the other two. And Vucetich’s zone-coverage, lenient style of play doesn’t bode well when squaring off with rivals of that nature. Even in their regular season matchup vs. Necaxa, with the Rayos being down to ten men at the end of the first half, it took all 90 minutes plus the 4 minutes of stoppage time for Chivas to finally get past Necaxa. Many forget Necaxa had even taken the lead with about 25 minutes to go in the match.
These are two very evenly matched teams who finished the season only two points apart. However, Chivas are viewed as the favorite because of their higher positioning and home-field advantage. While Uriel Antuna, Alexis Vega, Jesús Angulo and company showed improvement following Vucetich’s appointment, the shape and mentality that Profe Cruz whipped Ian González, Lucas Passerini, Unai Bilbao and those bad boys into to close out the regular season is beyond impressive. To take a league’s dead last team with six games to go and almost lead them to a top-8 spot is not something you see everyday.
PREDICTION: Profe Cruz got his defense clicking at just the right time, not allowing a goal in four out of those last five matches. Not to mention, Jair Pereira is now healthy and ready if needed. Unai Bilbao, Mario de Luna and the rest of that back line have been on fire of late. Passerini, Ian González, Zendejas, and even Bilbao all scored three goals this season. In other words, anybody can score, making this team all the more dangerous. They found their rhythm at just the right time, and if we couple that with Vucetich’s historic struggles facing physical, gritty teams, this is the repechaje matchup that can undoubtedly go the underdog’s way, and I believe it will. Necaxa move on to the playoffs to face league-leader León in the QF.