It must have been like playing with a new Christmas toy for manager Diego Alonso. He had been waiting for the moment when he could start his best attackers together, and last weekend the moment finally came. Aviles Hurtado, Rogelio Funes Mori and Rodolfo Pizarro started in Monterrey's attack for the first time since Aug. 4, leading Rayados to a 3-1 victory.
That win came against Atlas, one of the worst teams in the league. Now they must put in the same kind of performance in the playoffs, where reigning champion Santos Laguna awaits for Wednesday's first leg and Saturday's decider.
It's a fearsome trio and one Rayados surely thought they would be able to rely on. Alonso, the former Pachuca manager who took over Rayados in the summer, definitely has options up top. That's something that hasn't been the case for much of the season. Pizarro, Hurtado and Funes Mori all missed large portions of the Apertura with injuries. Now, they can work together. Pizarro may be best as a playmaker sitting behind Funes Mori, who is more of a traditional center forward, and the pacy Hurtado. Alonso started the former Chivas attacker on the left against Atlas, with Jesus Gallardo pushing up to to fill the gap when Pizarro floated centrally.
All three came off against Atlas with Alonso starting to rest his players ahead of the Liguilla - and that all three attackers went back in the box shows just how much Alonso plans to rely on those players. There are more attackers Rayados can field, like Dorlan Pabon on the wing or Luis Madrigal up top. Yet it's the three players who worked together this weekend most likely to get Rayados out of the quaterfinals and pushing into the playoffs.
Despite earning 30 points and the No. 5 seed, there have been criticisms of Alonso in his first tournament with the club. Rayados fans are used to finishing in the upper portion of the table, holding the advantage over the two leg series and moving through should there be a tie on aggregate. They don't have that advantage this time around, but Rayados players are still confident they can move through under Alonso's tutelage.
"I'm with the manager until the end. He works really well and pushes all the players," Gallardo said this week. "Support him, be at 100 percent and you have to take advantage of the guys who are on the field. If you get on there, give it everything."
There are still players Alonso won't be able to count on. Jonathan Urretaviscaya and Alfonso "Poncho" Gonzalez suffered season-ending injuries early in the campaign and midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez hasn't played since straining a muscle against Tijuana in Jornada 13.
While Rayados attack is healthy, it may be their back line under the most pressure. Santos scored in every match during the regular season with Julio Furch's 12 goals good enough for second place in the golden-boot race.
"It has been a long time since this has been achieved (in the Apertura),” said Santos manager Salvador Reyes, laying out the case for his team to be taken seriously as a title contender. “We managed to remain undefeated at home, we scored in every game of the tournament, and we are among the top five in offense and defense."
The strength Los Guerreros showed at home make Wednesday's match critical for Rayados. Getting a positive result might be next to impossible at the Estadio Corona, but if Rayados' attacking core can build up enough of a lead it could be enough to advance. Alonso has to like his chances better now with his attackers healthy.