The immediate reaction following Tijuana’s 0-0 home draw against Palmeiras in the Round of 16 of the Copa Libertadores was one of disappointment.
The Xolos players looked down, the handful of away fans who made the long trip could be heard and Palmeiras goalkeeper Bruno – named man of the match – stated in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish that the result was an excellent one for his side to take back to Brazil.
But the whole reaction was a reminder of something that Tijuana coach Antonio Mohamed was saying early this week, namely that Xolos have gone from a complete unknown to a team now garnering respect across not just the border to the north but also as far as the southern hemisphere.
It’s been a well-documented and steep rise and there is no reason to think it is necessarily at an end. Tijuana advances with a scoring draw or victory in the return leg.
And with the domestic season all but over – barring Friday’s meaningless game against Chivas – Mohamed has what you feel he has been badgering the Liga MX about for a while: Time to prepare the team fully for these Copa Libertadores ties.
The Argentine now has two weeks to get players like Pablo Aguilar, Javier Gandolfi and Alfredo Moreno back fit, to travel early to Brazil and to come up with a game-plan to advance to the next round, where one of Sao Paulo or Atletico Mineiro awaits.
There’s no denying that in recent weeks Mohamed hasn’t had that luxury. Playing the two tournaments has put a strain on the club, which only won once in its last 11 games.
The difficulties of traveling so much and playing in both tournaments are not only physical but also psychological. It’s hard to be chopping and changing the starting XI, and not winning on a regular basis can break that air of invincibility that Xolos had last season.
On Tuesday, the Xolos team largely looked disjointed, producing just flickers of coherence between the midfield and attack. When they did put moves together, they invariably led to chances, of which Tijuana should’ve taken at least one.
But the complaints from Mohamed about having to field players that clearly weren’t fit again highlighted the real conundrum in Mexico of where exactly the Copa Libertadores fits in the scale of priorities for its clubs, with the Liga MX, Copa MX and CONCACAF Champions League also competing for attention. There’s no doubt that Mohamed – backed by his board – has been crucial in setting the tone in prioritizing the South American competition. The conversation is ongoing and the case for giving more help to teams in the Libertadores seems to be strengthening.
Not that Tijuana’s run in the competition should be talked about in the past tense just yet. Mohamed and his players wouldn’t have seen anything to fear from Palmeiras. There’s the obvious physicality, but Xolos can give as much as they take in that regard. When they are at home and forced to open up a little, the likes of Duvier Riascos and Fidel Martinez should be given more room to wreak havoc on the defense.
It’ll be an uphill struggle and Tuesday’s 0-0 draw against the Brazilians may not have been ideal for Tijuana, but everything is still to play for in what should be a much more exciting second leg in Brazil.
Xoloitzcuintles are a club that has overcome bigger obstacles in recent times.
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