Santos in hunt, Tijuana can change history and five things we learned from the Liga MX weekend

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Goal looks back at the fifth round of Liga MX which saw the Guerreros prove their mettle and Xolos finally break a spell.

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons wasn't the only superb contest in North American sport Sunday. Liga MX had a double helping of entertaining games - games so relevant they took points No. 1 and No. 3 respectively on the Five Things We Learned this week list.

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Goal takes a look at those and the other things we learned right off the bat:


SANTOS BUILT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Jonathan Rodriguez Santos Laguna Jesus Sanchez Chivas

Santos didn't come out of Round 5 with a victory, but they did come out with their undefeated record in tact. That's more than it looked like the Guerreros would muster after Diego De Buen was sent off in the 70th minute, just five minutes after coming on, with coach Chepo de la Torre joining him early in the locker room soon after. Chivas already had been in control for most of the match, with a near-comical scene occurring just before the halftime break when Santos goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco made a pair of saves in quick sucession but left his goal open in doing so only for Chivas to hit the crossbar when it would've been easier to score. 

But Julio Furch's goal from a 58th-minute corner changed things. While Santos was only able to hold on to a draw with 10 men thanks to a heads-up play from Rodolfo Pizarro to head in a ball that could've stayed out like the one before the break, the away draw in the Estadio Chivas showed that the team has staying power. Last tournament was a disappointment for fans in Torreon, but coach Chepo de la Torre's signings in the close season bringing in league veterans like Furch but also handing big roles to homegrown players like full-backs Gerardo Arteaga and Jorge Sanchez have paid dividends.

The base of the team is their defence, where centre-back Nestor Araujo looks every bit the player ready to move to Europe that Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio endorsed him to be. Next to Araujo, Carlos Izquierdoz is providing consistency as well. Ulises Rivas staying in front of them frees up Osvaldo Martinez to get forward and create opportunities for Furch and Jonathan Rodriguez.

"The key has been player selection," said Santos assistant Benjamin Galindo, speaking instead of de la Torre because of the coach's sending off. "The team is very committed, playing good soccer, that's what has the whole coaching staff feeling happy."

"There's a great project happening at Santos," he continued. Last tournament we had to put in a lot of work, little by little the players were adjusting to thing. There's great communication and they've understood things really well. We started well, that's what is important.

And while Chivas snatched a point in stoppage-time Sunday, the fact that Santos is playing like a team that will be back in the play-offs after last tournament's dismal 16th-place finish is testament to the work Chepo and his staff are doing in the Clausura. This is a team that's in it for the long haul this tournament.


TIJUANA CAN END CURSES AS LEON'S DEFENSIVE ISSUES RETURN

Aviles Hurtado Club Tijuana Juan Cornejo Leon

Prior to this weekend, Tijuana had visited Leon's Camp Nou six times for a league match and lost all six. Minutes into Saturday's contest, it looked like Xolos were in for more of the same. Andres "Rifle" Andrade picked off a pass and headed quickly toward Tijuana's goal, moving the ball wide for Elias Hernandez in a goal so lovely you'll have to find it below in our Goal of the Week selection.

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Tijuana could've easily been stung by the early blow but instead stayed to Miguel Herrera's game plan, even when Michael Orozco left injured in the 20th minute. Tijuana absorbed pressure from Leon and eventually got forward to dish out their own punishment. Aviles Hurtado was excellent, exactly the player Tijuana needed to break a hex that seemed unbreakable. He earned and converted a penalty kick in the 39th minute, then won another kick from the spot (though Leon's Mexican-American goalkeeper William Yarbrough did his best not to make contact with the Colombian attacker) seven minutes later.

Xolos added two more goals, one a beautiful long-range half-volley from Guido Rodriguez on a bouncing ball that looked difficult to hit and another when Hurtado intercepted a pass around midfield and unselfishly played in United States international Paul Arriola for a right-footed blast.

Hurtado gives Xolos an especially fearsome weapon on the counter-attack with his speed, vision and ability to either surge forward or bring other players into the attack, and he's the perfect player for Herrera's system. It's no accident that Ricardo La Volpe, the Club America manager who influenced Herrera's tactics, wanted to bring Hurtado to the capital this winter.

"We had to keep getting points on a very difficult field, luckily we know how to come back, to take advantage of the moments that they came forward," defender Damian Perez 

On the Leon side, this is the same type of defence the team was playing at the start of last season when Luis Fernando Tena was the coach. Javier Torrente knows that his predecessor didn't last long with La Fiera. If he wants to stick around, he must shore up his defence. Help could be coming soon with Diego Novaretti soon to return from a suspension for spitting at Hirving "Chucky" Lozano in the first week of the season, but center back isn't the only spot where Leon needs to beef up.


GOALS COMING FOR PACHUCA

Oscar Murillo Pachuca

Pachuca, a team with a reputation for its open style of play that leads to high amounts of goals, went two weeks without scoring. It needed a defender, centre-back Oscar Murillo, to make sure that it didn't get to three. The Colombia international found himself with space as a free kick came toward him in the box and rose to hit it with the back of his head, putting the touch on the ball it needed to pass Pumas goalkeeper Alfredo Saldivar and send Tuzos back to Pachuca with a point.

After the goal, the television broadcast cut to coach Diego Alonso, who was calmly giving further instruction to Jonathan Urretaviscaya after the Uruguayan's free kick. While Alonso will be frustrated it took a set piece for his team to find a goal, Sunday's draw may have eased some of the worries around the club about scoring. Saldivar saved a penalty from Franco Jara and on the day Pachuca had six shots on goal as Pumas' No. 2 goalkeeper put in a quality showing.

Alonso said after the match that he was "annoyed, but satisfied in knowing the quality of players that I have in my squad, they left their soul on the field to avoid defeat."

Pachuca's attacking opportunities will be converted, and Alonso will be less annoyed with future matches, games in which more breaks will fall his team's way en route to three points.


JEMEZ'S PROJECT STILL IN IMPLEMENTATION MODE

Paco Jemez Cruz Azul

Paco Jemez's Cruz Azul team was dominant against Queretaro. La Maquina controlled nearly two-thirds of the possession, had 11 corner kicks to the Gallos Blancos' three, registered nine shots on goal to Queretaro's one.

Yet, any time someone lists stats like that, they're about to tell you why that team still didn't win. In this case, there's a short answer and a long one. The short answer is Tiago Volpi. The Queretaro goalkeeper, reportedly being scouted by Brazil for a potential national team call-up, was excellent. The only person on the pitch that could beat him was his own team-mate, with Luis Noriega rocketing an attempted clearance past him for an own goal.

The long answer is that Cruz Azul are still working toward understanding the idea Jemez wants to implement. This weekend saw major changes from the Spanish manager, and they worked well - only to be thwarted by the Brazilian. The left side, where Adrian Aldrete and new signing Martin Rodriguez teamed up well going forward, showed plenty of promise, as did the midfield pair of Rafael Baca and Gabriel Penalba. Chaco Gimenez was left out because of injury while Jorge Benitez was dropped to the bench. 

Jemez's team hasn't won since Round One, and there's not doubt the pressure will build. But the manager needs time to adjust to the league, and his team needs time to adjust to him. Cruz Azul has five points from five matches and is just two points outside of the Liguilla places. It's hardly a crisis, and it could yet turn into a fine season for the capital club. They don't have to play Volpi every week.


SAMBUEZA STILL POTENT IN ATTACK

Rubens Sambueza Toluca

Sometimes when it looks like an older player has lost it, there are whispers. There were full out shouts for Sambueza as he exited Club America in the winter. Not only was the player losing his creative magic, his critics said, he also couldn't keep his head. They pointed to his league-leading total of bookings in the Apertura, a tournament that ended with Sambueza getting sent off in the deciding match of the final.

Back at the scene of that crime, Sambueza gave the critics something else to talk about: a suave free-kick goal.

"I'm very happy to score in the Toluca shirt. It's going to be the first of many scored to help the team win," Sambueza said after the match. "It was a beautiful goal that helped us win and that's what we wanted." 

It was also a goal that signaled Sambueza still has plenty left in his legs. Toluca started the season with a jolt only to see the form dip, specifically in attack. Free kicks are pretty much the only way to score against Tigres' fortified back line, though the mind does wander and think there could've been a different outcome to the free kick were first-choice goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman guarding Tigres' net instead of Aaron Fernandez, who had to spell No. 2 Enrique Palos in the 15th minute because of injury. But Sambueza's Toluca account is open. Don't doubt him that more goals will soon follow.

 


GOAL OF THE WEEK

There were sweet set pieces, crushing counter-attacks and handsome headers, but this move from "Rifle" Andrade to set up Elias Hernandez and Hernandez lofting the ball over Tijuana's onrushing goalkeeper Gibran Lajud earns the nod from us this week. Hernandez is in Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio's team to face Iceland in a friendly this week. Perhaps he'll be able to showcase some of this skill on a bigger stage.


WEEKLY WHIMSY

Sometimes there's a play that's so nice, you have to applaud it, even if it's not in favor of a team you're supporting. And sometimes you're the referee and you give a goalkeeper a little wink and a fist bump after a stunning save.

Well, that's at least the case if you're referee Fernando Guerrero having a laugh with Necaxa goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero in the team's 1-1 draw with Monterrey. Of course, some are pointing to this as conspiracy or collusion. If so, it's not a very good scheme to go with the fist bump on international television. As it is, we'll chalk it up as true enjoyment of the game from the referee and a bit of whimsy for us to enjoy.

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