Tom Marshall: Breaking down the Liga MX quarterfinals

El Tri's time at the World Cup will come soon enough, but for now the attentions of Mexican soccer fans will be focused on the Liga MX playoffs.
With all the talk of the World Cup, who will make Mexico’s squad and just what El Tri could do in Brazil in June (and possibly July), it seems the Liga MX has been slightly on the back burner, simmering away.
But while national team issues grab the headlines, Liga MX playoffs should make for a fascinating appetizer to the big event this summer.
And if you need national team interest, then seeing what kind of form the likes of Oribe Peralta, Isaac Brizuela, Carlos Pena and Raul Jimenez are in ahead of Miguel Herrera’s May 9 squad announcement is all you need.
Here’s a rundown of the quarterfinal matchups:
Santos Laguna vs. Club America – (1st leg: Wed, 9 p.m. ET; 2nd leg: Sat, 10 p.m. ET)
Peralta stated in the week that playing America is just like facing any other opponent, even if Las Aguilas will be once again be in the hunt for title number 12 to take them past Chivas in the all-time honors list.
Santos Laguna – as coach Pedro Caixinha was happy to admit on Tuesday – go into the game as favorites, with America stumbling recently in the Estadio Azteca, where it is without a win in six games (in which time the team only managed to score four goals and lost 4-2 to Los Guerreros).
The match pitches the best offense – Santos with 33 goals – against the worst – America with 21 – of the teams in the playoffs. Santos should take the initiative and there should be plenty of goals, but the Torreon team’s major concern is in defense. Letting Panamanian international Felipe Baloy go to Morelia over the winter appears to have been a mistake, with the club leaking 29 goals over its 17 regular season matches.
Battle to watch: Raul Jimenez vs. Oribe Peralta – OK, so they may not be in direct competition on the field, but having Mexico’s two potential starting strikers on the pitch together will be worth keeping an eye on.
Prediction: Santos to edge the series, with America not able to find that extra gear that, so far under coach Antonio Mohamed, the team has only really clicked into in the clasico nacional against Chivas.
Cruz Azul vs. Leon (1st leg: Wed, 11 p.m. ET; 2nd leg: Sat, 8 p.m. ET)
Perhaps the pick of the ties, this is the closest game you will find at present in Mexico to the ideological battles of the Jose Mourinho school against that of Pep Guardiola in Europe.
It may not be quite so marked as Mourinho and Guardiola, but Luis Fernando Tena’s well-organized 4-2-3-1 system will look to soak up Leon’s pressure and hit quickly on the counter, principally through Marco Fabian and Joao Rojas on the wings.
La Fiera perhaps suffered from a little bit of naivety in its constant attack in the Copa Libertadores and will need to show more patience, more steel and take chances at a higher percentage than they have in recent weeks.
Battle to watch: Jose Juan Vazquez vs. Gerardo Torrado – It wasn’t too long ago that the latter was an undisputed starter for the national team and Vazquez wasn’t near El Tri. That has changed quickly under Herrera.
Prediction: The so-called “curse of the super-leader” combined with La Maquina’s penchant for finding ways to make things difficult makes it tempting to go for reigning-champion Leon. But with Olympic-winning coach Tena having won Cruz Azul’s last title and the club on a high after the CONCACAF Champions League win, you have to side with the Mexico City club, especially with Leon having endured a very long season in the Libertadores.
Pumas vs. Pachuca (1st leg: Thurs, 9 p.m. ET; 2nd leg: Sun, 6 p.m. ET)
Four goals in the final 15 minutes of Pachuca’s regular season fired Los Tuzos into the playoffs and should see them arrive with some momentum.
Ecuadorian Enner Valencia is one to watch at the World Cup and – after finishing top of the Clausura scoring chart – is set to make a mark on the liguilla, especially with Pumas center back and leader Dario Veron out.
At the other end of the pitch, Pumas will be hampered by the absence of Martin Bravo, although youngster David Ramirez has been scoring key goals in the past few games.
Battle to watch: Efrain Velarde vs. Jurgen Damm – Pumas left back Velarde has been on form this season, but will have his hands full with Pachuca winger Damm. The speedy Mexican of German descent has been the main provider of Pachuca’s goals this season and Velarde stopping him will be vital to the series.
Prediction: Pachuca to edge it. Although Los Tuzos have been wildly inconsistent in the regular season, the losses of Bravo and Veron are a blow to Pumas and Valencia’s firepower could be the difference.
Toluca vs. Tijuana (1st leg: Thurs, 11 p.m. ET; 2nd leg: Sun, 1 p.m. ET)
Los Diablos Rojos lost against Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League final and has a poor record of only one win in its last eight games against Tijuana. Indeed, Toluca has failed to win any of its last four games in any competition.

But that doesn’t stop the regular season runner-up being firm favorites against a Tijuana side that has intermittently shown signs of going places, but usually followed them up with inept performances. It has been a stuttering season for the border team, but Venezuelan coach Cesar Farias has got his side into the playoffs in his first season in Mexico. That is an achievement.
The series should be tight with the home games especially key considering Toluca is undefeated in the Estadio Nemesio Diez in the regular season and Xolos have turned the Estadio Caliente into something of a fortress in recent times.
From Toluca’s point of view, if it can stop Christian Pellerano, it will go a long way to blunting Xolos’ creativity.
Battle to watch: Cesar Farias vs. Jose Cardozo – Two explosive South American coaches on the same touchline. Expect friction. On the field, subtle tactical changes could be key and both these young, charismatic coaches will be keen to outdo the other.
Prediction: Toluca goes through on paper, with Tijuana’s inconsistency and the team having only strung back-to-back victories together once in the last 11 months proving the difference.