Gallito Vazquez will have hands full in Liga MX final

Hector Vivas
The midfielder has been key to Santos' turnaround and will need to influence Sunday's match if Los Guerreros are going to lift the trophy

Santos Laguna is one game away from its sixth Liga MX title. Whether or not it lifts the trophy will depend largely on the work of a winter arrival: Jose Juan Vazquez, better known as "Gallito". 

It was a role reversal when Gallito flew north to Torreon with Santos moving two prospects to Chivas and the 30-year-old Vazquez going the other way. Generally Santos develops talents and moves them along once they're ready for a bigger club, getting cash or more young players in exchange.

This time, manager Robert Siboldi must have sensed that it was something different he needed. Even after missing the postseason with a 14th-place finish, the manager was looking to bounce back in a big way. Vazquez immediately filled a role where Diego De Buen and Ulises Rivas in the middle next to Osvaldo Martinez.

Vazquez has been a difference maker for Santos, starting in all 22 of the team's league matches to this point and helping them to a surprise spot in the final. Maybe it shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was.

He was part of Miguel Herrera's Mexico team four years ago and put solid two-way showings in the World Cup. At Santos, he's again been tasked with winning back the ball and moving forward. With the attacking speed Santos has going forward and Martinez next to him, Vazquez doesn't need to join the attack as much as he has at previous stops. Still, his passing has been excellent.

That hasn't changed in the postseason, with Gallito converting on 95 per cent of his passes, misplacing only three in Thursday's Liga MX final first leg against Toluca.

He'll have his hands full defensively in the second leg, with Pablo Barrientos and Rubens Sambeuza looking to set up scoring plays after Santos' 2-1 first-leg victory, and will need to put in one more excellent match this season for Santos to emerge as champions.

Toluca's two creative players were limited in the first leg, but the Red Devils also were looking to hit on the counterattack rather than get forward with those players.

They achieved their goal with a Luis Quinones goal on the break. In the second leg, there were be many more chances for Vazquez to break up. He's done so often this season, frustrating teams in the middle and making Chivas fans wish he'd never been allowed to go.

It's been such an excellent season for Vazquez that many pundits seemed to be anticipating that he had played himself back into contention for Juan Carlos Osorio's national team.

The manager's list of 28 players who may go to Russia confirmed that Vazquez, who hasn't been called up since 2015, isn't suddenly in the manager's plans. It does have to be frustrating for the 30-year-old to be on the outside looking in despite consistently great performances.

But the squat Vazquez doesn't fit with the profile Osorio and his coaching staff are looking for when it comes to a defensive midfielder. Just look at how Mexico took Monterrey's Jonathan Gonzalez and immediately converted him from a deep-lying player who wins the ball back into one that plays as an interior midfielder coming up the field more often and associating in attacks.

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Pablo Barrientos Toluca Jose Juan Gallito Vazquez

Lifting the trophy with Osorio in attendance surely would be a cathartic moment for Vazquez, especially if he's able not only to help ward off the attacks from Toluca in the run of play he's used to but also if he can be involved in stopping the kind of set-piece threats on which the national team staff finds him wanting.

Vazquez will have his hands full Sunday night, but he also has an opportunity to finish what he started when he came north to Santos. He's been quiet about the lack of attention from Mexico, but winning the title against a Toluca team full of attacking threats would send a loud message to Osorio and anyone else who doubts Vazquez's ability.