When America striker Christian Benitez appears on the front page of one of Mexico’s main sports newspapers holding out his hand full of cat food, you know there is something a little different going on this weekend in the Liga MX.
The headline “Benitez invites Pumas to eat Whiskas,” accompanied Record’s front cover on Wednesday, with the obvious reference being that Pumas are not the quick, lean hunters their nickname represents, but simply domesticated pussycats.
Of course, the whole affair was to add a little spice to America taking on Pumas on Saturday in the biggest game that Mexico’s gargantuan capital has to offer.
Aside from the usual sociopolitical aspect of pitting a team representing Latin America’s largest and largely left of center UNAM center of education against a side run Televisa, the biggest media corporation in the Spanish-speaking world, this time around both Pumas and America are high in the table and within touching distance of securing playoff spots.
The rivalry between the two clubs also has as one of its foundations the perception that Pumas is a club reliant on producing homegrown talents, whereas the Aguilas buy big and are proud of it. The needle been the two teams started early in the week, with that aspect of the rivalry at its heart.
“Pumas is based on sacrifice, teamwork and not on big signings,” 26-year-old Martin Bravo, who has played his whole career at UNAM, told Record. “There are no stars, the base is the team and hard work, that’s how we have achieved things.”
The response from America was swift and inflammatory.
“In America, each teammate and I are stars,” Benitez said, also in an interview with Record. “There’s obviously a reason that you are in one of the best clubs.”
In front of what is likely to be a near sold-out Estadio Azteca, Rubens Sambueza returns for out-of-form America, while Pumas have only suffered one loss in their last 16 games under coach Antonio Torres Servin.
It’s also worth pointing out that the clubs’ coaches held a historic joint press conference on Wednesday, urging supporters of both sides to get behind their teams, but refrain from violence.
“There’s a good relationship here (between us coaches), and although on Saturday each one will give everything for their colors, it doesn’t stop being just a game,” said America coach Miguel Herrera.
Heading west to Mexico’s second city of Guadalajara, the Clasico Tapatio has also been brewing nicely all week.
Atlas coach Tomas Boy boasted that he did get current Chivas strike duo Miguel Sabah and Rafael Marquez Lugo playing well together when they were at Morelia, while Chivas boss Benjamin Galindo pulled no punches in criticizing the Atlas board for apparently reneging on a deal back in 2011, when he was forced out as coach the club.
Unlike the majority of games between Guadalajara and Atlas, Saturday’s affair sees Chivas go into the game as underdogs.
Atlas have the opportunity to end Chivas’ chances of reaching the playoffs, in front of a sold out 60,000-capacity Estadio Jalisco, while Chivas limp into the game without Marco Fabian and reeling from three consecutive defeats.
It’s a massive occasion for one Omar Bravo, who is Guadalajara’s second-highest goal-scorer of all time, but has been instrumental in helping the Rojinegros to a dizzy second-place in the Liga MX table. A goal from the 33-year-old would certainly bring an interesting reaction from the crowd.
Up north, a rivalry has slowly but surely been developing between Monterrey and Santos Laguna, down partly to the proximity of the two clubs, but mainly due to the amount of high profile finals the two clubs have fought out in the Liga MX and the CONCACAF Champions League in recent seasons.
While there is mutual respect between the institutions, Friday’s showdown will be the first of three games between the two in the next two weeks (the other games being the CCL final). It should set the tone nicely for an epic series between clubs that stake a good claim to be Mexico’s best.
In sum, even if Mexican soccer isn’t you’re thing, this should be a weekend not to miss.