The big leagues in Europe may have reached their conclusion, but in Mexico, Liga MX is building toward what promises to be a thrilling crescendo. So far the Clausura playoffs have gone to form, with the four top seeds from the regular season having progressed into the semifinals, yet there were still thrills aplenty in last weekend’s quarterfinal second legs.
On Saturday, last year’s Apertura champions Tigres were sent packing by Monterrey, while León came back from a first-leg deficit to hammer Morelia. But the real drama came the following day. First in the Clásico Nacional, Club América just held off their rivals from Guadalajara, Chivas, in a match that went right to the wire. And then Pachuca so nearly threw away their advantage against Santos Laguna in another contest where the winner remained in doubt until the very last second ticked away.
It will take something special for the semifinals, beginning this week, to top such drama, but the matchups are once again enticing ones.
Club América vs. Monterrey
First leg: Wednesday 9.30 p.m. EDT
Second leg: Saturday, 9.30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Univision Deportes
The storyline in this semifinal writes itself. Antonio Mohamed, the Argentine who led América to the 2014 Apertura title despite his exit from the club having already been confirmed following a dispute with the club’s hierarchy, will return to his former home with top seeds Monterrey. If he is to succeed, Monterrey will have to put in a better showing than in the second leg against Tigres, when they looked nervy and lost 2-1 on the night to progress 4-3 on aggregate. They will have to be especially good in the first leg at the Estadio Azteca, where América have won seven of their last nine matches.
América got somewhat fortunate at home to Chivas on Sunday, with Carlos “Gullit” Peña missing a penalty that would have put Chivas in a commanding position. But América showed their defensive strength in holding firm when they had the lead. And in their centenary year the Mexico City giants will be desperate to add the Clausura crown to the Concacaf Champions League title they claimed last month. Against the man who led the club to their last Liga MX title, current América coach Ignacio Ambriz now has a perfect opportunity to show that he is a more than adequate replacement.
Prediction: Club América to advance
Pachuca vs. León
First leg: Thursday, 9 p.m. EDT
Second leg: Sunday, 9 p.m. EDT
TV channel: NBC Universo
A contest between the teams that finished second and third in the regular season table, separated only by goal difference in Pachuca’s favor, promises to be one of fine margins. Pachuca will start as slight favorites, in large part thanks to their trio of young attacking starlets, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and Rodolfo Pizarro. But, having been less than clinical in an anxious second leg against Santos Laguna, they must now deal with the weight of expectation to deliver when the pressure is really on.
And they will also have to find a way past a León defense that has been particularly stingy of late. Under former Mexico interim coach Luis Fernando Tena, who took the reins in January, León had a strong finish to the season and have now gone seven games unbeaten, not conceding more than a single goal in any of those fixtures. In Argentine striker Mauro Boselli, León also have a striker who has scored 23 goals in 32 games in the 2015-16 season.
Prediction: Pachuca to advance