The Mexican challenge for this year’s Copa Libertadores kicked off in an all too familiar fashion last week, with Morelia crashing out of the qualification round to Colombia’s Independiente Santa Fe.
It was the third consecutive year that Mexico’s qualifying side failed to get into the group stage. And it was all the more disappointing considering that Monarcas boasts players like Aldo Leao, Jefferson Montero, Duvier Riascos and Egidio Arevalo - all of whom would walk into most teams featuring in this year’s Libertadores.
Despite the failure of Monarcas, there is an argument to be made that Leon and Santos Laguna – the Liga MX’s other representatives who begin the group stage this week - can make a dignified run in a competition no Mexican side has ever won, despite both having started the Liga MX’s Clausura championship poorly.
One of the central reasons for that stems from their managers, both of whom are on record talking of their big ambitions of coaching clubs in Europe. There is no doubt Santos Laguna’s Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha, 43, and Leon’s Uruguayan boss Gustavo Matosas, 46, are very aware that the South American competition is by far the best shop window in the Americas to attract attention on the other side of the Atlantic.
The duo is well-schooled tactically in football outside of Mexico’s borders and is highly motivated. Although they are unlikely to say it – as then-Tijuana coach Antonio Mohamed did in 2013 – Caixinha and Matosas could well prioritize the Copa Libertadores over the domestic Liga MX.
Both Matosas and Caixinha have also been at their respective clubs long enough to have a full grasp and knowledge of the talent with their institutions, which obviously helps balancing the squads over two competitions.
Another major plus is the mix of experience and youth each squad has, along with some of the very best talent in Mexico at present.
The heart of Leon’s side is Carlos “Gullit” Pena. The 23-year-old midfielder is one of the most exciting players in the Liga MX and has improved rapidly over the last 18 months.
Alongside him for last season’s Liga MX champions are Luis Montes and holding midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez, while Argentine striker Mauro Boselli was a key figure in Estudiantes de La Plata winning the 2009 Copa Libertadores title.
At the back, former Barcelona player Rafa Marquez is the captain and the lynchpin, although he has a minor injury and could miss the opener against Flamengo. Becoming the first Mexican to lift the Libertadores is surely a huge motivation for the 34-year-old and would round off an exceptional career in style.
The same could be said for Santos Laguna goalkeeper and captain Oswaldo Sanchez, who leads a side in which young Mexicans Nestor Araujo, Jose Abella and Alonso Escoboza are all on the fringes of the national team squad.
But the star player and the focus of the Santos Laguna team is Oribe Peralta, who is likely to lead Mexico’s front line at the World Cup this summer. The Darwin Quintero-Peralta partnership can be devastating when on form and with the former still having an outside chance of making Jose Pekerman’s Colombia squad, he’ll badly want to succeed in the Libertadores.
In terms of the groups, Leon has tough trips to Bolivian side Bolivar, Ecuador’s Emelec and Brazilian giant Flamengo, while Los Guerreros have Uruguay’s Penarol, Argentina’s Arsenal and Venezuelan outfit Deportivo Anzoategui.
The barriers of the huge trips south, the intense atmospheres and the Liga MX being unequivocal in not helping out Mexican teams in the Libertadores (despite it potentially being a superb advert for the league) will be the same as every other year for Santos Laguna and Leon, as is the quality of the opposition. As usual, the key will be picking up wins in the home games.
But both Mexico’s representatives in this season’s Copa Libertadores have, on paper, every chance of advancing to the latter stages, if their young, ambitious managers can find that crucial balance between league play and continental competition.