Tom Marshall: Will 2013 be Mexico’s year in the Copa Libertadores?

No Mexican team has ever won the prestigious club competition, and three clubs are vying to be the first in 2013.
Every year, it's the same old question: Can a Mexican team go on to lift the Copa Libertadores for the first time ever?

This year, with Leon kicking off its campaign on Tuesday against Chilean outfit Deportes Iquique, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about Mexican involvement, even if many will roll their eyes and sigh that we have all been here before.

On paper, Tijuana looks the Liga MX team most likely to go deep into the competition.

Tijuana’s Argentine coach Antonio Mohamed’s first priority in his side is solidity. In that regard, his Xolos team plays in a way that would fit right into the Argentine first division and Argentine sides are usually pretty tough to get past in the Libertadores.

The reigning Mexican champion has only conceded 28 goals in its last 37 regular season games and it is no coincidence that the central defensive pairing of Javier Gandolfi and Pablo Aguilar is all South American and from the school of hard, no-nonsense defending.

The fact Mohamed guided Independiente to the 2010 Copa Sudamericana will also hand Xolos the kind of know-how that Mexican sides have previously lacked.

Mohamed has been open in saying the Libertadores is the team’s priority, adding that the squad will be rotated in the Liga MX and the strongest possible 11 held back for the continental competition.

The whispers coming out of Tijuana suggest that it was the lure of a Copa Libertadores run which persuaded Mohamed to stay on at the club. In sum, the club means business.

While the usual hindrances of travel and the lack of flexibility of Liga MX authorities in accommodating teams playing in the Copa Libertadores will not change, not one team in South America will be relishing the journey north to Tijuana to play in a packed Estadio Caliente on artificial turf. That alone has to be a significant advantage for Tijuana.

The two downsides to the argument Tijuana will do well in the Copa Libertadores are if Duvier Riascos leaves the club in what remains of the January transfer window – with Stuttgart confirmed to be interested - and the fact Group 5 does look particularly strong with Corinthians, Millonarios and Bolivia’s San Jose.

In that respect, Enrique Meza´s Toluca has a slightly easier test in Group 1 against Boca Juniors, Paraguay’s Nacional and Ecuador’s Barcelona.

Toluca, a team with a solid, if not inspiring look about it, should be able to navigate a way out of that group.

Alfredo Talavera in goal is capable of playing the role of the hero and the defense has an assured feel.

Last season´s runner-up in the Liga MX, Meza has already tasted success in South American club competition by winning the 2006 Copa Sudamericana with Pachuca.

What Toluca wil desperately need is Panamanian striker Luis Tejada to step up to the plate and find some form.

After bursting onto the scene with a flurry of goals, Tejada has only one in his last 11 Liga MX games. Brazilian Lucas Silva has shouldered the burden of scoring, but both, as well as playmaker Sinha, need to be firing on all cylinders.

On the positive side, Tejada has eight goals from 11 appearances in the Copa Libertadores from his time with Peruvian side Juan Aurich.

Meza’s comments about the club taking the Copa Libertadores seriously have been a breath of fresh air and give Toluca fans reason to hope.

“I want to be in both (the Libertadores and the Liga MX),” Meza has been widely quoted as saying. “The club and the fans also want both.”

Leon, on the other hand, looks to be Mexico’s weaker link in the competition this season. The side has only been in the top division a little over six months and, despite playing the most fluid and attacking soccer in the Liga MX, has demonstrated defensive vulnerability recently that will likely be exposed in the American continent’s premier club competition.

Velez Sarsfield, Penarol and Emelec await if Leon can get past the qualification tie against Deportes Iquique.

If Leon makes it there, Rafa Marquez’s side should provide some entertainment and is more than capable of providing a shock or two.

Overall, it should be a much-improved Copa Libertadores campaign for Mexican teams than last time around.

Don’t rule out one of Tijuana, Toluca or Leon becoming the first Mexican club to lift the famous trophy, although it's a Herculean task considering the strength of some of the Brazilian clubs involved.

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