Believe it or not, the Liga MX playoff race isn't quite as insane as it has been in previous years. Don't get things wrong; the race is still tight. But compared to the normal situation with half of the league in the mix for the top eight with two weeks left, this year the field doesn't seem as crowded.
Atlas, Pachuca, Tigres, Leon and Pumas all have work to do (though the dream is fading fast for Pumas) and could use a little luck. The picture seems clear now, though if the past is any indication, it soon will be muddied.
While we still can make sense of everything, here's what everyone's talking about ahead of the penultimate weekend of the Liga MX Clausura:
It's a big weekend for ... Javier Torrente
Here's what we wrote about Leon coach Javier Torrente heading into the March international break:
"I want to keep working and fighting to turn things around," he said after the game. "We'll use two friendlies (during the international break) to get those who aren't playing much into rhythm."
Whether that will help, or if Torrente will be around to see it, is still an open question.
At that point, Leon sat at the bottom of the league with just six points from 10 matches. Well, the friendly matches did seem to help. Leon is undefeated in its last five games and Torrente, who looked like a dead man walking, is back to savior status. Leon now has 19 points, which has the club just one point out of the playoff places entering the weekend.
Yet, despite his team's hot streak, a trip to Guadalajara to face Chivas isn't Torrente's dream scenario. While coach Matias Almeyda's men haven't won in their last three, they still sit fourth in the league and will be eager to find the cohesion that had them looking like the top candidate to win the title not long ago - around the same time Torrente's side was floundering in the basement, as a matter of fact.
"It's a key match, difficult and defining," Torrente said this week of Saturday's clash. "We've got a lot of doubts where logic indicates that it's the close of a tight tournament and we wouldn't get the points, but we're going to go for these points. We're in a fight with Pachuca and Tigres."
And the Leon resurgence does defy logic. But there they are - tied on points with a Tigres team facing a tough opponent this weekend (see below) and a Pachuca side that hasn't won in its last five league games. Oh, and both teams are coming off a CONCACAF Champions League final that obviously required their top players go out and play a full match during the week as Leon watched at home.
Closing at home against Cruz Azul looks promising, but three points might not be enough for La Fierra to sneak into the Liguilla. Not only that, but the last four results for Leon have come against teams in the relegation fight - a hint that the lower quality of opponents may have allowed Leon to win points they wouldn't have been able to take off tougher teams.
The defense certainly seems better than it did at the opening of the tournament, and Elias Hernandez and Mauro Boselli both have multiple goals during the stretch. But can they do it against a top side? This weekend's match is a chance for Torrente to show he and his team are for real. Whether he can do it is still an open question.
Don't miss ... Tigres vs. Tijuana
It's not a great time to be Tigres.
After narrowly missing out on winning the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time, the team's reality now looks bleak. A continental championship and trip to the Club World Cup could've been a bandage to cover the team's struggles in league play. Instead, fans are now gawking at the open wound.
A team with this much talent, worth this much money, not only without a trophy to show from a long tournament run but missing the Liguilla? It's an ugly prospect and would leave a mark if Tigres can't get it together. Coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti has always had a longer leash than any other manager in the league thanks to his long history with the team, but he must be feeling the tug after Wednesday's defeat. Multiple reports indicate Ferretti was heard launching into a tirade in the locker room after the loss.
And now, the attention turns to the league where Tigres sit a point out of the playoffs and face current leader Tijuana on Saturday. The playoffs aren't out of reach. Ferretti had his team playing much better before the CCL loss, with goals finally coming from his big-money attackers. And the last two home matches saw Tigres take 3-0 and 4-0 victories. Keeping a clean sheet against Xolos will be a tall task for the Tigres back line, though. Xolos' 29 goals scored leads the league.
Keep an eye on ... the relegation zone
Veracruz's shock victory against Pumas may have been enough. The first win away from home since late 2015 for the Tiburones Rojos, the triumph gives Veracruz three critical points after it seemed the Atlantic club was destined for the Ascenso.
Now it's Morelia on the edge of being the one team this year to drop out of top division. Monarcas haven't been all that poor this season, with 18 points, but picked the wrong time to hit a cold snap. A defeat to Necaxa last time out means it's now two straight losses and five league games in a row without picking up three points. A visit from Pumas and a trip to Monterrey to close out the season doesn't exactly inspire confidence - though Roberto Hernandez's men will be able to count on a fit Raul Ruidiaz up top. Facing a Pumas team that just fell to another team battling for survival may not be an advantage, though.
"The ideal is to get the six points," Hernandez said Wednesday at a news conference. "We know the margin of error is minimal. We have our mind on the fact that they're important games. Pumas is here and doesn't come in doing well. That doesn't make them weaker. It makes them much more dangerous, since they have their mind on qualification to the Liguilla.
Jaguares, the team currently sitting next to last, welcomes Santos Laguna this weekend and travels to Atlas, while fourth-from-bottom Puebla is just a point away from mathematical safety. Things could be decided this weekend if a pair of teams find victories, but it likely will come down to the last moment for the teams in danger of going down.
Quote of the Week
"I'm telling you how I feel, and I prefer that they don't qualify, but it's not because I wish them ill but rather because I don't want to face them because they're a top rival. That's the reality, and they're also not going to want to face us," - Monterrey coach Antonio Mohamed on whether or not he'd like to see crosstown rival Tigres make it into the Liguilla.