This weekend's top-two clash between Monterrey and Club America was left less competitive than most neutrals may have hoped for, but it also served as a nice appetizer for what looks like a competitive Liguilla.
Rayados are the favorites after topping America 2-0 on Saturday, but they're still not invincible. Below them, it becomes a much muddier picture. America is still a very dangerous team, even if Saturday wasn't its day, while Tigres are hitting their stride. Leon and Morelia both seem unlikely to win the title but are going to be very difficult to knock out.
It's going to be a great end to the tournament, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. The field still isn't set, and there was plenty to take from the 15th round of matches. Let's look back now:
Monterrey establishes itself as favorite
Sure, they were undefeated, but they also lost to Puebla. Could Rayados really be all that good?
Well, yes. And no.
Monterrey's 2-0 victory over Club America in a matchup of teams sitting at the summit cemented Rayados as the favorite to lift the trophy at the end of the season. Their defense suffocated America's strong attack. Up front, Neri Cardozo cleaned up Carlos Sanchez's whiff for the opening goal and Aviles Hurtado converted a penalty. It was a victory in a very Monterrey fashion. The team mostly kept its shape and stayed solid, took a few risks that paid off and ended up taking an easy victory.
The match also showed a few of the potential weaknesses the team could have to overcome if it's going to avoid a playoff collapse. Cardozo earned a red card that caused Monterrey to close up shop for the last half-hour, and with Rogelio Funes Mori absent, finding a goal was much more difficult for Monterrey than scoring has been in other contests this season.
"Truthfully, we're happy with the result and really satisfied for the work the team put in, that despite being a man down, which we know makes things tougher, we knew how to see out the game," center back Cesar Montes said after the match.
The team's coach, Antonio Mohamed, hopes it's a learning experience for his team that it was able to overcome missing players and going a man down to beat a feisty America.
"I think last tournament the team learned not to relax despite being qualified and today was a good test where we could show it," Mohamed said. "We deserved to win. Unfortunately, we were a man down quickly but despite that we defended well and had the better chances."
They'll have to prove their superiority more and more over the next few weeks - first in a final weekend Clasico Regio showdown with Tigres and then when the Liguilla kicks off. Right now, though, they're the team to beat.
Marquez return helps, but Atlas has more needs
Atlas was thrilled to see Rafa Marquez back on the field and just as happy to see Ravel Morrison score his debut Liga MX goal Saturday against Queretaro. While Marquez's return is welcome, and he played surprisingly well for a player who is 38 years old and has not seen competitive action in months, the team still needs more to make it into the postseason. Wednesday's visit from Tigres - to make up a match postponed when the video screen at the Estadio Jalisco was recently modified and was not at a height safe for play - now is enormous. If the Los Zorros are able to win against the No. 2 team, they'll move into the Liguilla spot and control their own destiny. Anything less will see things unchanged.
While Camilo's beautiful free-kick goal was next-to-unstoppable, allowing two goals against last-place Queretaro doesn't inspire enormous confidence that the defense can keep Tigres' high-powered attack from find the back of the net.
Of course, just a few weeks ago, the team's main concern was avoiding relegation. On that front, Atlas is feeling much better and with Marquez back and Morrison on the scoreboard can feel good about their current situation.
"We're fighting to try to capture the maximum amount of points because of the relegation situation," Atlas coach Jose Cruz said. "We've had an important start, we dominated Queretaro, then they had two chances and went ahead on the scoreboard. From there we had to change the allignment."
Cruz Azul playing dangerous game
Before Saturday's match against Tigres, we looked at how desperately Cruz Azul needed to get a victory against Tuca Ferretti's side. It didn't, falling 2-1 in the Estadio Azul, but maintained the final Liguilla spot. Now, Cruz Azul and coach Paco Jimenez will become Tigres' biggest fans. If the Monterrey side can top Atlas in Wednesday's rescheduled contest, Cruz Azul still will control its playoff destiny and end its long drought with wins against Morelia and Veracruz.
For a team that so badly wants to make the playoffs, though, and for a coach who will be out of a job at the end of the season if he fails to do so, the team has not shown the required urgency. Angel Mena's sending off was a turning point in Saturday's game and will take away an attacking weapon the team might need against a strong Monarcas defense. Goalkeeper Jesus Corona also wasn't at his best in Saturday's loss, which is surprising for a player who has performed as well as he has this tournament. Jemez said that's what the team has been struggling with all season. The focus on the little things.
"We weren't having trouble. Tigres wasn't getting forward. It annoys me. We look stupid when the opponent isn't creating chances and we set things up for them," he said. "The little details are the ones that define football. I've always said the great teams are the ones who don't mess up. We're missing a little of this, being more focused on the details."
Cruz Azul is flirting with the line, and that's not good enough. If this team is truly still one of the grandes as its players have said all season, it will be able to get over the line after cleaning up the mistakes - big and small - its made since taking its first defeat back in late September.
Toluca attack goes cold at wrong time
Morelia continues being a thorn in teams' sides, moving up into third place in the table and extending its unbeaten run to five matches with a 1-0 win Sunday over Toulca. The result is a good one for Monarcas, but frustrating for the Red Devils. The frustration was evident at the end of the match with Pablo Barrientos' penalty saved by Morelia goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa and keeping Toluca from taking a point from the encounter.
Toluca now has failed to score in its last two league matches and has won just once in its last five contests. It was quietly chugging along on the way to the Liguilla and now is quietly slipping out of the playoff places. Coach Hernan Cristante is upset not with the results or the performances, but rather with the lack growth he sees in his team.
"The team gave its best effort, it had chances, I think outside, inside and in the middle," he sadi after the game. "There's something hurting us. I can't get more out of the team." The coach went on to say he'd spoken with Toluca's president and sporting director and was unsure if there were better things on the horizon.
The Red Devils now make a trip to Veracruz before closing out the season against Tijuana. A few weeks ago, it seemed like an easy end to the tournament ahead of the playoffs. If Cristante can't get the team thinking the right way, though, the season may live much earlier than expected.
Chivas make charge too late
It would've been very easy for Chivas to toss in the towel after Miler Bolanos' opener from a beautiful team move by Tijuana. The team hadn't won so far this season at Estadio Chivas this season and is out of the playoff race. Tijuana is pushing for a Liguilla spot and found an early goal. Instead of rolling over, though, Chivas fought back to score the next three unanswered and finally break the apparent curse that had caused them to stumble at home all tournament.
It's too late for Chivas to make any moves into the playoffs, but this match will give their fans hope. In addition to an improved showing by a back line that has been poor all season and also has struggled with injuries, an attacking hope came through as well. Juan Macias, an 18-year-old forward who was part of Chivas' U-17 title in the 2016 Apertura, scored two excellent goals to help Chivas get then extend the lead.
It's been a frustrating year for Chivas but if the team's veterans along with a few exciting prospects like Macias are able to repeat as Copa MX champions there will be hope for the upcoming tournament as well as a nice consolation prize in Verde Valle.
Goal of the Week
It turns out that if you let Francisco Silva have this space in front of the box he will indeed smash it past the goalkeeper for the opening goal.