Four first-leg clashes are set to open the Apertura playoffs this weekend, and there is intrigue to be found in all the quarterfinal matchups.
All the focus in Mexican soccer over the last couple of weeks has been squarely on the national team. With so much on the line in terms of getting to the World Cup, it is little surprise.
But while the national team was busy dealing with New Zealand, the eight remaining Liga MX teams were preparing for what is a genuinely intriguing liguilla.
Toluca vs. Cruz Azul (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET)
Two heavyweights go head to head in a matchup both would’ve been keen to avoid, especially Toluca, which hasn’t managed to win against La Maquina in its last eight attempts.
The vast majority of Cruz Azul’s games this regular season were tight, with the Mexico City club having just 21 goals in 17 games. Toluca, on the other hand, was the highest scoring team in the Apertura with 33 goals.
Cruz Azul has the extra incentive of trying to make up for that excruciating final defeat in the Clausura, with its fans desperate for success.
What to look for: Toluca’s Paraguayan striker Pablo Velazquez’s battle with Cruz Azul center backs Jair Pereira and Colombian Luis Perea. Velazquez has 12 goals in 11 starts so far this season and keeping him under control will be key for Cruz Azul.
Prediction: A low scoring draw with both teams not wanting to give too much away ahead of the second leg.
Morelia vs. Leon (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
Morelia has been buoyed by the Copa MX victory and in Jefferson Montero, Hector Mancilla and Aldo Leao, it has an attacking trident than can rip defenses to shreds at will. The away side will probably play it slightly more cagily and look to hit a Morelia defense – which conceded more goals than any other team in the playoffs – on the break.
Leon will struggle with Carlos Pena, Luis Montes and Rafa Marquez all busy with the national team recently, but Morelia had Aldo Leao away with Colombia, Jefferson Montero with Ecuador and Rodrigo Salinas with Mexico as well.
What to look for: Rumors suggest interest in Montero from teams in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga is sky high. It could be one of the last times the Ecuadorian plays in Mexico and he’ll want to go out with a bang.
Prediction: Morelia to win 2-1.
Tigres vs. America (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET)
Under normal circumstances, you’d expect a high-flying and confident America to breeze past a Tigres side that crept into the playoffs after struggling to overcome nine-man Atlas on the last day of the regular season.
But due to the fact 10 of America’s squad only arrived back in Mexico on Thursday from the mammoth trip to New Zealand, there has to be questions about whether fatigue will be a major issue for Las Aguilas.
A surprise could be in store with Tigres regulars in the playoffs, and the base of the team is the same that lifted the Apertura 2011 title.
What to look for: Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti is known for his conservative approach, but with a week’s break between matches, will he go for the jugular and ditch caution as America tires? History would tell us not, but the Brazilian may have a trick or two up his sleeve.
Prediction: 0-0. With away goals counting and America aware of its poor preparation, a scoreless draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either side.
Queretaro vs. Santos Laguna (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET)
Los Gallos Blancos were not expected to get anywhere near the playoffs at the start of the season, but have forged a team that makes up for star names with collective cohesion.
Nevertheless, Queretaro is still very much the outsider of the eight teams left in the playoffs and Pedro Caixinha’s Santos Laguna – as possibly the favorite for the title - should be too strong.
Los Guerreros have scored in their last nine games, averaging over two goals a match over that time.
What to look for: Oribe Peralta is the man of the moment in Mexico, and he'll look to continue his blistering hot run of form.
Prediction: Santos prove too much for Queretaro and secure a 2-0 victory.