Toluca sends statement, staying atop Liga MX without its stars

Hector Vivas
The Red Devils were looking ahead to Wednesday's Copa MX final but still managed to top Tigres and stay in first place in the league

They lacked some of their usual firepower but sent a statement anyway. Toluca topped Tigres 1-0 Sunday thanks to a beautiful goal from Angel Reyna, extending its winning streak to 11 matches across all competitions.

It's fair to say Toluca manager Hernan Cristante started five players who are not part of his best XI. Yet Toluca was able to frustrate a star-studded Tigres team to maintain its place at the summit of Liga MX. Cristante also enters, he hopes, with some of his best players fresh. Creative winger Rubens Sambueza and in-form forward Alexis Canelo came into the match in the second half while central midfielder Antonio Rios and Leonel Lopez rested ahead of Toluca's Copa MX final Wednesday against Necaxa.

Even without those players, the Red Devils withstood Tigres' attacks, allowing them their usual possession but stymieing their efforts to get into more dangerous areas. Tigres kept the ball better and shot more, but Toluca shot better - though Reyna's goal was a wonder from outside the area.

Once the goal scored, both Cristante and Tigres manager Tuca Ferretti made their adjustments, first with Cristante showing he wanted to build the lead by putting on Sambueza, then with Ferretti forced to bring off Hugo Ayala because of an injury. That pushed him into a back three and to bring in quick winger Jurgen Damm.

Cristante has won several chess matches against other managers this season. While his team has played more aggressively than in previous tournaments and reaped the reward with the excellent form it's currently in, the former goalkeeper loves to devise a plan that will squeeze opponents.

Between controversy about referee Luis Enrique Santander, who was calling a game involving Tigres for the first time since his calls in the 2017 Apertura went against the northern club and in favor of eventual champion Tigres, and a few chances, this one could've gone differently. It didn't, though, with the Argentine boss' tactics once again paying off and the streak growing by another victory.

Notably, Toluca was able to keep Tigres from scoring. The best opportunity came from Ismael Sosa, whose shot was curling toward the inside of the net in the 40th minute before Alfredo Talavera pushed it wide. It's the first clean sheet the Red Devils were able to keep since March 11 against Pumas and ended a streak of allowing a goal in four consecutive matches.

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On the outside, the wingers came back to help the fullbacks with Tigres' dangerous wide players, and Cristian Borja and Rodrigo Salinas were able to make a number of critical interceptions or tackles to deny service toward Enner Valencia or Eduardo Vargas.

Why Andre-Pierre Gignac didn't see the field is something Ferretti will need to answer for. Toluca has a cup final coming up in three days, so it's easy to understand why Cristante would use a few variations. Tigres' next match is at home in six days. They needed a goal. This year was looking different, like Tigres would make the Liguilla without any issue. They probably still will, but Ferretti's apathy toward making changes when it looks like his team needs them continues to be a source of confusion.

That shouldn't take any shine off what Toluca did Sunday. Without some of its best players, Toluca stayed as the leader of the league, extended its winning streak and made it clear its ambitions when the playoffs arrive will be to add to its trophy chest.