Pumas are the hottest team in Liga MX through two rounds. After storming back to beat Pachuca 3-2, Pumas crushed Atlas 3-1 to move to the top of the table. For the first time in a long time, the matchup against fellow Mexico City rival Club America has meaning. The debate shows and newspapers started talking about the contest Monday, only a day after Pumas took the top spot.
It's easy to see why the Clasico Capitalino is generating so much excitement. Los Universitaros look good with forward Nicolas Castillo already having scored four goals and setting up new teammate Matias Alustiza for another. Despite all that, Club America manager Miguel Herrera says he's been sleeping soundly and has no fear of Castillo, Pumas nor the rivalry contest in front of him.
"Do I have bags under my eyes?" said Herrera, before jokingly tugging at his eyelids at a Friday news conference. "No player keeps me up at night.
"I work to prepare for every game, to make sure the fans are happy, that they're proud of their team and that's what we work for. In this type of games, yes there's the pride beyond simply the three points, but it's still three points. The desire to win in whatever circumstances, to get the three points, is the same."
Herrera has basis not to fear Pumas. Going back to his first stretch with Las Aguilas, before he left to take over the national team, Herrera has won seven straight Clasicos against Pumas. Not since the 2015 Apertura have Pumas been able to topple America.
Pumas are working to change the recent history, though. After finishing in last place during the previous tournament, two victories have fans believing not only that they may be able to get a win that will give them bragging rights over their neighbors but also put together more results in the Clausura and return to the Liguilla. Atlas made the postseason in the Apertura, but with Los Zorros currently in crisis this is the first real test Pumas are facing.
America is in transition of its own. Herrera often says that at a club like America, a championship is expected every tournament. They were well short of that and spent the winter trying to get better up front. Colombian winger Andres Ibarguen could make his debut off the bench but Frenchman Jeremy Menez likely is still a week away from making the America squad.
Herrera has gotten a big boost from a familiar face. Forward Henry Martin, who Herrera coached at Club Tijuana, came in this offseason and already has scored a pair of goals for Las Aguilas. Oribe Peralta opened his Clausura account with a goal in America's 2-2 draw with Pachuca last time out. The strike partnership may not be the one America imagined earlier this year, but it should challenge Pumas' defense. The back line doesn't have a figure like Castillo who has stood out in the first two victories. Spanish center back Alejandro Arribas, who signed in the winter, has the potential to be that player but left the Atlas win early with a knock.
Maybe more significant than individual contributions is the attitude of hard work and humility Pumas manager David Patino has preached. The former Pumas forward had a handful of interim spells with the team but only late in 2017 was given the permanent job. He cares deeply about the club and about the players he currently is in charge of managing.
"There's a discussion in the group every day with an element of confidence. This game is very important for the institution, not just for the first team," he said earlier this week.
His players are taking the rivalry seriously — maybe too seriously. "There's a war on Sunday. Let's go!" Castillo posted on Instagram with midfielder Marcelo Diaz replying, "I'm going with you, brother. Together to the war."
The metaphors are too much, but there's a much different attitude in the Pumas team than even just a few months ago. The good start and the steady hand from Patino have changed the mentality. They want to show that they're not afraid of America either.
All eyes are on Sunday's game. Neither team is scared of the other. For the first time in a long time, the Clasico Capitalino matters.