There was no doubt about the better team in Sunday's Campeon de Campeones match. Tigres stomped Santos Laguna 4-0 to win Liga MX's final preseason tune-up - a meeting between the Apertura and Clausura champions.
There was some doubt when the moment to lift the trophy arrived, though. Would it be Guido Pizarro, the man who wore the armband and scored the opener in the contest? Or would it be Juninho, the club's longtime captain who is still coming off a shoulder injury that kept him out of the latter portion of preseason? In the end, each grabbed a side and hoisted the trophy together.
Pizarro didn't seem all that concerned about who took the honors, and that's the same attitude he has on his Tigres return. After an up-and-down year with Sevilla, the Argentine midfielder returned to Mexico and will be key for Tigres as they look to bounce back from a disappointing Clausura.
The Campeon de Campeones win Sunday may give Tigres a small level of revenge against the Santos team that knocked them out of the playoffs. A win Sept. 19 against Toronto FC in the first-ever Campeones Cup would give them some revenge against the team that knocked them out of the Concacaf Champions League. But the Apertura, the Liguilla and the 2019 CCL that follow will be far more important to Tigres than anything achieved outside of league play.
"We’ve got to keep going with the same humility we showed today. We approached the match with the highest level of concentration possible," Pizarro, decked out in a sequined Tigres top hat, told Univision after the match. "We knew we were the ‘bigger team’, but without dedication that doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to go into the tournament with that kind of humility."
Pizarro's humility allowed him to return to the league he'd just left without making too much of a fuss. Coming back to Mexico from Spain could be seen as a big step back. After an inconsistent year with Sevilla that saw a coaching change and a slip in playing time, however, Pizarro is pleased to be back with the club he left in July 2017. "I’m happy to be here, to be able to come back and score a goal in front of the fans," he said. "For my family that’s in Monterrey and always supported me when I left, it’s a blessing to return."
While Rafael Carioca filled the void well when Tigres won the Apertura title in their first tournament without Pizarro, the team sputtered at the start of 2018. Injuries required modifications, but manager Tuca Ferretti also saw the need to make changes to his formation and tactics. Tigres had become predictable, with 35-year-old Juninho among the regulars starting to show their age.
Pizarro's return should help revitalize Tigres. As Santos' title win, keyed by acquiring Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez in the winter, showed, a team that can control the middle of the field will have a good chance to win Liga MX. Pizarro helps protect defenders like Juninho and also gives an option when wing players get in trouble and need an outlet.
He also provides Ferretti far more flexibility than the coach had last tournament. His favored 4-3-3 is very much on the table, with Pizarro next to Rafael Carioca and Lucas Zelarayan in the middle behind a forward line of Javier Aquino, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Jurgen Damm (or Enner Valencia or Eduardo Vargas or Julian Quinones - Tigres do not have issues at forward). A 4-2-3-1 with Pizarro partnering Carioca in the middle also is an option. And Pizarro's defensive abilities also provide more opportunity to go to three at the back as Tigres did for much of the Clausura.
The occasional goal, like the header he put past Jonathan Orozco on Sunday, is the cherry on top for Tigres. At 28 years old, the club believes he still has plenty to offer - as evidenced by the nearly €9 million (£8m/$11m) transfer fee they paid to bring him back to La Sultana del Norte.
Any reaction to a performance in a preseason match is an overreaction, but Pizarro picking up where he left back off in Mexico is a great sign for Tigres. Pizarro papers over a lot of the cracks the team showed last tournament. It couldn't close out matches and was too fragile defensively, seeing plenty of matches in which it was leading turn into draws. The return of El Conde will help fix both those issues.
He may not wear the captain's armband on the field this season, but Pizarro can lead Tigres to another season up to the standard of one of the region's top teams.