Before the Clausura championship began, anyone suggesting that Atlas would be in second place, ahead of America, as the season approached its halfway stage would have been ridiculed.
Pundit after pundit wrote the Rojinegros off, with the majority of the opinion that Atlas would be playing Ascenso MX soccer next season. Ongoing financial problems and difficulties paying the players’ wages coupled with the strange signing of Chivas’ second-highest ever goal-scorer Omar Bravo made for a turbulent preseason. Even the fans feared the worst.
What has happened since is the success story of the Clausura tournament so far. Seventeen points from eight games has left Atlas nine points ahead of relegation rival Queretaro after Saturday’s 0-0 tie, virtually condemning the Gallos Blancos to the second division.
Coach Tomas Boy deserves a lot of credit; he has taken a sinking ship and turned it into one of the better teams to watch in the Liga MX. Too often in the last few seasons Atlas has played defensive, cagey soccer, but Boy has been bold in going back on the offense, as is Atlas’ tradition.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the signing of Bravo was a stroke of genius. Confronted with death threats on arrival, the 32-year-old has redoubled his efforts to get the fans on his side after a patchy last couple of seasons. It’s not just hard work though, as anyone who saw his volley against Monterrey will testify: Bravo is back.
Equally as important has been incoming winger Isaac Brizuela with his trickery, pace and delivery. He gives the team a surefire outlet on attack and is showing signs that he could potentially one day challenge for a spot in the Mexican national team squad.
At the back, Leandro Cufre reportedly rejected offers from higher profile teams to stay and help Atlas fight against relegation. That has earned him the adoration of a fan-base that has been used to too many foreign players coming into the club, not producing, and moving on swiftly.
Cufre’s performances on the field mean he must be a serious contender for the Liga MX center back of the season award – he’s led by example and has been a rock defensively.
As to the question of whether Atlas can challenge for its first title since 1951, there are other positive signs.
The balance between experience and youth at Atlas is excellent, with Cufre, Lucas Ayala, Bravo, Matias Vuoso complimented by younger players like Las Vegas-born midfielder Ricardo Bocanegra, Edson Rivera, Alexis Loera, Jahir Barraza and Carlos Gutierrez.
Unlike in recent seasons, the Estadio Jalisco has been a factor, with good crowds getting behind the team in its relegation battle. Playing in the 1970 World Cup stadium when it is mainly empty does not frighten opposition teams in any way, but with the barra packed into one end, the stadium does begin to have an impact.
In net, Chilean international Miguel Pinto has moments of madness but it also fully capable of making exceptional saves, as he has done on numerous occasions this season.
Potentially, there is also more to come from Atlas, specifically from striker Matias Vuoso. It wasn’t too long ago, in the Apertura 2010 and Clausura 2011 seasons, that the Argentine was one of the most feared strikers in the league. While he has worked hard this season for Atlas, Vuoso nearing that sort of level would be a massive boost for the Rojinegros.
On the flipside to that wave of positivity, this is Atlas, a club famous in Guadalajara for not winning and enduring a plethora of bizarre circumstances to make things difficult for itself.
As much as the fans – known as The Faithful – deserve a little success, you can’t help thinking that at some point something has to go wrong.
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