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Mid-Season Review: Capital Clubs

With three of Mexico’s “Big Four” crowded together at the summit of the Guard1anes 2020 standings, how have this trio gotten to where they are and what are their prospects for the rest of the campaign?

Cruz Azul v Pachuca - Torneo Guard1anes 2020 Liga MX Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Pumas (1st, 19 Points, Goal Differential +9)

Nobody expected that Los Universitarios would be the lone remaining unbeaten heading into round 10, especially after the abrupt exit of former manager Míchel shortly before the season opener against Querétaro. That they are where they are is down largely to the work of former academy director Andrés Lillini, who has injected belief into a squad that seemed set to struggle.

How much longer Pumas can go without tasting defeat is unclear, but they have certainly set themselves up for a top four finish. Although they lack the depth of other contenders, the presence of real quality at both ends of the pitch means that Los del Pedregal cannot be excluded from any title discussion.

In net, summer signing Alfredo Talavera leads the league with 31 saves. Furthermore, “Tala” has helped unify a dressing room that could have been split by Míchel’s departure. The wild celebrations that ensued after the Mexican international’s penalty stop on Brayan Angulo in round 7 against Tijuana are indicative of the esteem in which he is held by his teammates.

While Talavera has been instrumental, Pumas would not be where they are without the performances of ruthless strike partnership Juan Dinenno and Carlos González. The South American tandem’s ten goals are more than six other sides have managed in total, including fourth-placed León. Dinenno has been lethal since joining from Deportivo Cali in January, but González’s return to prominence after a shaky start is arguably more significant. The Paraguayan predator’s hard-running, unselfish style is a boon for his employers both in and out of possession.

Los Universitarios are the tournament’s undoubted surprise package, and they now have the opportunity to make a serious run at a first finals appearance since the Apertura 2015. They face six of the current top eight before the regular season closes, and how they perform in those contests will shine some light on their playoff chances. Barring a historic collapse down the stretch, however, this is already one of their best campaigns in recent memory.

Cruz Azul (2nd, 19 Points, Goal Differential +9)

They might be entrenched in the table’s privileged positions, but all is not right with La Máquina. Robert Dante Siboldi’s charges have displayed a repeated inability to break down deep-lying defenses, with the hard-fought 1-0 victory over Pachuca only the latest example of a worrying trend.

Although they have a well-stocked squad, Siboldi is short on invention at the moment. Elías Hernández and Roberto Alvarado are both struggling to recreate the showings that made them key components just a few months back, leaving the offensive burden squarely on the shoulders of Jonathan “Cabecita” Rodríguez. The Uruguayan is capable of carrying the load up front, but relying on his brilliance to bring liguilla glory is a risky proposition.

Fortunately for Cruz Azul, they still have plenty of time to resolve their issues in attack. There is a long wait before the postseason commences and arriving at that decisive stage in fine fettle is a prerequisite for any outfit with aspirations of silverware.

Going into the playoffs full of confidence is especially important for a club weighed down by repeated high-profile failures since they lifted their last league trophy in the Invierno 1997. Although the scars from those painful episodes seem to have healed under Siboldi, no one will know for sure until La Máquina are back under the bright liguilla lights.

América (3rd, 19 Points, Goal Differential +6)

Las Águilas have proven to be a team of extremes so far. They boast the deadliest attack in Liga MX with 20 goals, but have conceded a whopping 14. Although their offensive output and never-say-die attitude under Miguel Herrera will make them a dangerous foe in the liguilla, a title tilt is unlikely unless they can shore things up at the back.

Despite Herrera’s tactical acumen, bandaging a brittle backline is easier said than done. América are without captain and defensive linchpin Bruno Valdez for the rest of the season after the Paraguayan suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in late August against Monterrey. Emanuel Aguilera can still take a mean penalty, but at 31 seems unable to hold together a rearguard that has allowed nine goals from set pieces, more than any other team.

Even though Los Azulcremas briefly climbed into first place after a stirring come-from-behind win at Puebla, the sense of a side barely getting by is palpable. Outside of dynamic forward duo Henry Martín and Federico Viñas, there is a tangible lack of quality in comparison with previous iterations of Mexico’s most successful club.

A shift in transfer strategy goes a long way to explaining the barren cupboard. América have traditionally been one of the division’s heaviest spenders, with the arrival of famous international footballers a common sight at Coapa down the years.

This new outlook has been a huge economic triumph. In 2019/20, Los Azulcremas made a profit of $32 million in the transfer market. Yet, that eye-popping windfall has not been adequately reinvested.

The exodus of elite talent has been particularly damaging in midfield. Guido Rodríguez, Edson Álvarez and Mateus Uribe were all key figures on the road to the Apertura 2018 crown, but their replacements have not been up to snuff. As a result, Herrera has had to get creative, experimenting with a back three formation in the last few games. “El Piojo” is one of the premier coaches on the continent, but even he might be unable to paper over the cracks come playoff time.