Rubens Sambueza returned to the field last week to make his ninth and tenth league appearances with Toluca. Despite relative inexperience with the Red Devils, he looked right at home.
Sambueza logged assists in both matches to help Hernan Cristante's side into the semifinals.
His season, meant to be be an important one for a team celebrating its 100th anniversary, had been cut short by a suspension he'd earned when he leaped onto Isaac "Conejo" Brizuela's ankle from behind. The play got him a direct red card and a suspension for the remaining eight matches of the campaign.
His return, and that of Enrique Triverio who returned from a similarly lengthy ban because of contact made with a referee in a cup match, spurred the Red Devils on to a 4-1 thrashing of Santos Laguna in the first leg of the quarterfinal and set up the semifinal with Chivas after surviving a comeback attempt from Santos in the second leg.
That stomp, which still has Brizuela sidelined, means a move away from rival America has hardly made Sambueza any less of a lightning rod for Chivas and their fans ahead of the semifinal. Many were hoping Sambueza's suspension would last as long or longer as the injury to the winger. Instead, he's pulling the strings and creating chances for the Red Devils and looking to inflict pain on Chivas once again.
"We lost a good player and they got a good player back," Chivas midfielder Nestor Calderon told reporters this week. "This situation is a bit uneven, but that was the decision other people made."
For Cristante, Sambueza's reputation as a dirty player fed into Chivas' feelings after the match.
"They're making it personal. I think it's a personal situation," he said after the incident in March. "They can be as hurt as I am about what happened to Conejo Brizuela. Well, I don't know about as much as I am because I know Brizuela, he grew up in Toluca next to us. I know what he's learned, whe he's done, what he's gone through. It hurts us. We've also suffered injuries because of bad tackles, accidents. I know what happened. I think Chivas are taking it personally."
It was hardly the first time the 33-year-old hurt Chivas, though generally he's doing so on the field. He hasn't scored against Chivas but has directly assisted five goals, like in the 2016 Clausura when he beat Osmar Mares and put in a cross for Oribe Peralta to finish or when he set up similar moves for Raul Jimenez before the striker's departure to Atletico Madrid. The Argentine also has been involved in the build-up of several more goals against the Guadalajara side throughout his career with Pumas, Tecos, America and now Toluca.
He'll look to do it again in Thursday's first leg at Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez and again Sunday on the same Estadio Chivas pitch where he was sent off just months ago.
While Toluca managed a fourth-place finish without him, Sambueza's return provided a jolt for a Toluca attack sputtering heading into the postseason. Toluca hadn't registered a victory since early April against Pumas before the playoffs started and had scored only four goals in its last five matches.
In the four-goal explosion and even in the less bombastic second leg, Sambueza looked like the same dangerous player he always has. His ability with his left foot is tough to defend and he can change pace easily, getting by defenders or sending them past as he looks for a teammate making a run inside.
There's also the potential for disaster, though. His red card was hardly without precedent — it's no surprise to find his name atop both the assist charts and the booking lists. At this time last season, Sambueza found himself missing a match against Chivas after he was given two yellows in the first leg of America's quarterfinal series. It was again harshly bringing down Brizuela from behind that got him into trouble.
That decision was appealed and denied, but Sambueza never has seem too upset about finding his name in the book often. Between legs of the quarterfinals he posted a quote attributed to Louis van Gaal which read, "I am how I am. I have my way of doing things. I'm not going to change, and I don't want to change," a message Sambueza tweeted out with his own thought, "To each his own, gentlemen."
The second-leg slowdown will be concerning for Cristante, whose idea to largely defend the lead did not pay off. He'll have to create danger going forward to take some of the pressure off his center backs, with Chivas expecting to get more minutes from Rodolfo Pizarro as he recovers from injury and Angel Zaldivar also back in training recovering from an injury.
The fight to get into the final has no obvious favorite, in contrast to the other semifinal where the oddsmakers heavily favor Tigres to get past Tijuana. But standing in Chivas' way of a double after this spring's Copa MX win are Toluca and Sambueza, that familiar foe who could return to agonize them once again.