Brent Latham: Liguilla semifinals offer zesty matchups

As opposed to last year, the heavyweights all shoved their way to the semifinal round of the Mexican Liguilla this Clausura.

It doesn’t always work out this way, but the semifinals of the Liguilla are shaping up to be great matchups for the Clausura 2012.

Just a few months ago, the Apertura 2011 Liguilla brought a couple of duds in the semifinal round, after the top two seeds, Chivas and Cruz Azul, were knocked off by Queretaro and Morelia, respectively. This time around, four of the top five seeds are through to the semis, with only fifth-seeded Tigres ousting a higher seed. And the defending champion would be considered by most accounts just as talented and capable a team as Morelia, the two clubs having finished the Clausura tied on points, with Tigres trailing by just one in goal differential.

So for all intents and purposes, the best four teams over the last four months are set to play for the Mexican title. It’s an ideal outcome subject to long odds in the short tournament era, and a great thing for fans and for Mexican soccer general.

With the exception of Tigres, the semifinalists were the highest scoring, most offensive and attractive teams of this Clausura. So besides the obvious quality indicated by finishing at the top of the table, fans can expect a heavy dose of attacking action in the home and away matchups that start Wednesday night.

But perhaps of more interest, all four teams have something significant, and unique, on the line in terms of establishing (or reestablishing) their reputations, and placing themselves at the top echelon of Mexican soccer. These semifinals will determine more than a champion in Mexico. They will also go a long way towards determining which club has the right to call itself the reigning elite of contemporary Mexican soccer.

Here’s what’s on the line besides a place in the final:

America - Monterrey

An attractive matchup of a giant resuscitated against a team that has come to be respected as one of the top clubs in Mexican soccer and the region, America versus Monterrey has plenty of storylines.

Two-time defending CONCACAF champion Monterrey looks to consolidate its latest title with a trip back to the Mexican final, which it won as recently as 2009. Another trophy for the Rayados would establish the northerners as the clear team of the year in Mexico, and put it indisputably at the top of the Mexican game.

America, for its part, looks to win its first hardware since a league title in 2005 was followed by a Champions Cup in CONCACAF the next season. The healthy team is a far cry from the one that dropped a round 13 matchup earlier in the season against Monterrey, when Miguel Herrera was forced to field a number of younger players due to injury and national team absences.

If America can regain its historic grasp on success in El Azteca and ride that advantage to a victory over the CONCACAF champion, it will loudly announce the return of the Aguilas as a force to be dealt with continent-wide, following a series of down years that included some awful tournaments.

Santos - Tigres

No less alluring than the clash of titans set to kick off in Mexico DF, the battle of rising northern stars set for Monterrey on Thursday night will define plenty in the pecking order at the top of the LMF.

Tigres, long in the shadow of Monterrey, faces off against no less than the Clausura’s best. The defending champion is yet to show top form in this Clausura, but the victory going away over Morelia in the quarters suggest Ricardo Ferretti’s team may be hitting its stride just in time to stage a successful title defense.

Tigres bowed out of their abbreviated Copa Libertadores participation earlier this year with a whimper, so a return to the podium is all the more important to establishing the up-and-coming northern club as one of the top teams in Mexico, and the region.

Santos came close to doing just that a few weeks ago at the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, but a last-gasp Monterrey goal left the Warriors empty-handed once more. With a string of Liguilla and CCL failures growing longer, it’s easy to forget that Santos won the Mexican title as recently as four years ago.

After two dropped Liguilla finals and that CCL final loss, Santos is looking like a perennial bridesmaid. That makes winning a title this time around, while boasting the arguably most potent attack in Mexico and possibly the best Santos side in recent history, all the more important to the team and fans in Torreon who would like to consider themselves a force among the country’s elite clubs.

As for the other four semifinalists, aspiring to the title of today’s Mexican heavyweight champ, only a trophy will assure that status.