Liga MX

Liguilla race is on, but Toluca the biggest story nobody in Mexico is talking about

19:00 SAST 2018/04/23
Rodrigo Salinas Toluca
The Red Devils are far and away the hottest team in the league even as the superlider's efforts go largely unnoticed

There's drama in the middle of the Liga MX table with three tickets still left to be punched to the "Gran Fiesta" of the playoffs, but a story at the top of the table has largely escaped attention.

Were it a 'grande' atop the league, America or Chivas, or even one of the new power teams from the north like Tigres or Monterrey, the opportunity to go into the postseason as the superlider 10 points clear of the second-place team would dominate conversation. Instead, it's Toluca who saw off Veracruz 3-0 Sunday and confirmed it will be the No. 1 seed in the Liguilla.

That traditionally hasn't been a good thing with the superlider struggling to exert its regular-season dominance in the tournament that actually decides which team is the champion. More than dismissing their opportunity to lift the trophy, the lack of coverage for Toluca is based more on regionalism.

Cruz Azul's 2-0 victory Saturday to see off the Estadio Azul with a win was justifiably the lead for six of eight sports newspapers Saturday while it's Pumas dominating the front pages Monday morning thanks to the 2-1 win over Santos Laguna that has David Patino's team controlling its own destiny on the final day.

Ignore the Red Devils at your own peril, though. Mexican teams certainly have learned their lesson. It's easy to shrug off Toluca's thrashing of a team like Veracruz, which overachieved this season but won't be seeing playoff play. Harder to dismiss is the nine-match winning streak Toluca currently has with five of the teams included in the run sitting in the playoff position. In all likelihood, the Red Devils will be facing teams they've already beaten in two weeks when the postseason rolls around, which has to give them an extra level of confidence if they needed one after running off so many wins.

The press in Mexico City may not notice, but Toluca manager Hernan Cristante thinks his team can win the title even if he downplayed his team's dominance since the middle of February.

"I think yes, Toluca has become one of the favorites, but that doesn't guarantee you anything at all. Anything we might say can change in a game," he said after Sunday's win. "Today we're a consistent team and powerful concerning the game. We're a difficult team for anybody. We're candidates like the other seven teams who are going to get into the Liguilla."

It's far more likely that Toluca go out as champion than the team that nabs the seventh or eighth seed, though. Cristante's back line has allowed multiple goals just once in a league match this season and that came back in January before the run.

Sunday veteran playmaker Rubens Sambueza was kept out to rest an adductor muscle that's annoying him, but Rodrigo Salinas came through. The right back scored twice and sent a cheeky message to Mexico national team manager Juan Carlos Osorio after the match.

"Thanks team. I'm a fullback and I'm Mexican #9ConsecutiveVictories #TheDevilIsLoose," wrote the 29-year-old, who also lived up to his "Stripper" nickname by dancing with the corner flag to celebrate one of his goals.

That's how it's been during the streak. If Sambueza isn't creating or if Luis Quinones isn't scoring or Santiago Garcia needs to bounce back from a horrendous own goal that lost Toluca the cup, someone else has stepped up. Toluca has become a team this season, playing the unified style of football Cristante wanted to implement since he took over in 2016.

That may have escaped notice for now, but Toluca will enter the playoffs as one of the best teams in recent memory. It's an interesting story that deserves attention. That attention will come should the Red Devils roll on and keep their streak going into May. It could even result in the first title since 2010.