Monterrey is the odd team out in the Liga MX semifinals. You can see that just by looking at a map.
In addition to being the only team from outside Mexico City to make the semifinals, Rayados also are the only team that pulled an upset in the first round. Their opponent Wednesday, Cruz Azul, is the one seed, and the two and three seeds, America and Pumas, are in the other semifinal. Monterrey was the five seed entering the postseason, but Diego Alonso's side thumped Santos Laguna 3-0 on aggregate to earn their spot in this round.
While Rayados were in the final as recently as last Apertura, something has seemed off this tournament. Sure, Rayados have continued to spend like a big club. They brought in Rodoflo Pizarro and Jesus Gallardo in the summer, with both playing big roles this season. The starting goalkeeper, Marcelo Barovero, was acquired in a swap from Necaxa.
Yet their play this season hasn't looked like that of a title winner. Not that the team is too concerned about who those of us who love to chatter about the sport think will win this weekend.
"Honestly, we have our goal very clear, and it doesn't matter to us if you say we're favorite or not," defender Leonel Vangioni said in a news conference Tuesday. "We have to do our job. Being the favorite doesn't mean you're going to end up as the champion, that's why honestly we're not focusing on whether they're calling us a candidate to win the title or not."
It's a bit of a departure from previous Monterrey campaigns, when Rayados' regular season performances made it look like they would ease to a title victory only for them to fall short in the playoffs. Alonso knows that first-hand, having been manager of Pachuca when Tuzos ended top-seeded Monterrey's hopes of winning the trophy in the 2016 Clausura.
Yet, taking Rayados lightly based on their regular-season form would be a big error. The club suffered injuries to most of its key attackers, with Pizarro, Rogelio Funes Mori and Aviles Hurtado all missing large portions of the season. Midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez is still recovering from an issue he picked up in October - though he's back in training and could play in the second leg. Jonathan Urretaviscaya and Alfonso "Poncho" Gonzalez are out for the season.
The form the club showed against Santos is the more likely indicator of the type of Monterrey team Santos should expect. A team that is stingy in defense with various players capable of helping the three-man back line but also can get forward with two-way players like Gallardo and Vangioni on the left, Carlos Rodriguez in the middle and Stefan Medina on the right. While not as possession-adverse as Antonio Mohamed's previous teams, Rayados are comfortable without the ball, ready to put it where they want quickly when they do get the ball back.
Cruz Azul should be attentive, with Superlider hoping to avoid the 'great regular season, falling short in the playoffs' pattern Rayados had become infamous for falling into. Even that would be a step up from recent years in which Cruz Azul became known less as a good team that fell short when it mattered most and more as simply a bad team. Pedro Caixinha and sporting director Ricardo Pelaez have engineered a turnaround that has borne out good results in the regular season. That may be forgotten if the campaign doesn't end with more silverware than just the Copa MX, which Cruz Azul won at the Estadio BBVA Bancomer earlier this tournament.
"It was important to come into the Liguilla with a good start, and we're pushing on with the same focus, with the same goals," Cruz Azul midfielder Rafa Baca said at a press conference. "But we know that if you don't win the league, everything we've done to this point isn't worth anything."
To do that, they'll have to lean on their excellent defense, with the battle of the series the Monterrey forwards against the Cruz Azul back line that has been so solid all season. If La Maquina win that battle, they may be in their dream final.
"Against America in the Azteca," Baca said. "I've said it from the start of the season, that'd be my perfect scenario, to get long-awaited revenge that the fans want and to get that ninth star."
Otherwise Rayados may spoil the party once again, keeping the attention off Mexico City and leaving Cruz Azul fans to once again wonder how the club snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.