If it weren't for the fine suit and the glasses, we might not have recognized Antonio Mohamed last weekend.
The Monterrey manager was looking fashion-forward as always at El Volcan, but was this his Monterrey team? Rayados nearly won the possession battle with Tigres and started without a handful of their best players in the Clasico Regio. They still came away with a 2-2 draw, but it was a different Mohamed on display.
In previous tournaments, both last season in the Apertura and in the 2016 Clausura, Mohamed had put everything into regular-season excellence. That ended up looking silly when the No.1 seeded team fell short in the final on both occasions.
Losing finals isn't something that has vexed Mohamed during his career. He lifted trophies with Tijuana and America. Yet as he heads into the Liga MX quarterfinals against Tijuana, with the first leg kicking off Wednesday and the return taking place Saturday in Monterrey, there's some speculation this chance to win the prize with Monterrey might be his last.
Mohamed has won more than half of the matches he's overseen at Rayados, turning the Estadio BBVA Bancomer, which opened in 2015 just after Mohamed took over as manager, into a fortress where opposing teams rarely emerge with a result.
"Tony's work has been really good, but he's missing the cherry on top of the cake, he's missing the crown. We're all looking for this, and the team is well put together to be the champion. We've taken a jump up in quality, we've positioned the team among the best and we have to win it and "El Turco" knows that," Monterrey sporting president Duilio Davino said last month, using a common nickname for the Argentine coach who has Lebanese heritage.
The coach himself does not seem all that concerned about the potential of being shown the door if he's not able to bring Monterrey a title this tournament.
"They're rumors. That's part of 'the show.' I'm focused on my part - and I have a contract. We're planning for next season, and I have the total support of the directors. 100 percent," Mohamed said when asked about the reports swirling about his potential replacement.
After being around Mexico for as long as he has, though, Mohamed knows that number can quickly go from 100 to 50 to 0. He may have the board's confidence, but the way to make sure there's no doubt it to win the league.
Mohamed made tweaks to his team during the offseason that have continued throughout the year. He's rotating players in and out more frequently. Some of the changes have been forced by injury, like that of central forward Rogelio Funes Mori, who is nearing a return from surgery he had to repair nerve irritation, but others have been Mohamed's invention.
He's revitalized the career of Alfonso "Poncho" Gonzalez, once a promising youth star at Atlas whose career looked like it had flamed out. Gonzalez came into the middle and has set up Aviles Hurtado, Dorlan Pabon and the rest of Rayados' attack.
While the formation has changed, the system has stayed largely the same. Monterrey is content not to have the ball, then looks to win it in midfield through Jesus Molina or Jonathan Gonzalez before breaking forward with speed and catching opponents off guard.
That strategy might be tough against Diego Cocca's Tijuana in the quarterfinals. Tijuana loves to play defensively and is the team in the Liguilla that has been booked the most times. Rayados and Xolos played out to a scoreless draw in their only regular season meeting, though if that happens over both legs Rayados move through thanks to their better regular-season finish.
That's the one place where the regular season serves in the Liguilla, though it's a moot point in the final. Mohamed has learned that the hard way in the past several seasons. He may not survive another bitter final defeat, but after a more relaxed regular season that saw experimentation and rotation rather than honing in on one idea and perfecting it, he may not have to.