Short-handed Guadalajara hosts red-hot Rayos
The “repechaje” returns to the Liga MX playoffs after a 12-year absence, but with a twist this time around. The four wild-card series for the Guardianes 2020 are one-off matches instead of a home-and-home series with the higher seed hosting the do-or-die game.
The winner of each contest (no overtime, straight to penalty kicks if the score is tied) moves on to the quarterfinals where the top four seeds await their opponents.
Saturday’s schedule opens with No. 8 Santos hosting No. 9 Pachuca while No. 10 Necaxa visits No. 7 Guadalajara in the nightcap. Sunday night’s games both take place in Monterrey as the No. 5 Rayados host No. 12 Puebla and the No. 6 Tigres welcome No. 11 Toluca to “El Volcán.”
The consensus among pundits is that the home teams will ease past their underdog opponents on Sunday, leaving Saturday’s contests to provide all the drama.
Liga MX Wildcard Saturday: Necaxa at Chivas
The most popular club in Liga MX had lofty goals entering the Guardianes 2020. Task No. 1 for Guadalajara was ending its seven-season playoff drought, but that wasn’t enough for GM Ricardo Peláez. He insisted the Chivas aimed to earn a first-round bye by finishing in the Top 4.
Early season struggles quickly struck that from the wish list and Peláez sacked coach Luis Fernando Tena after Matchday 3. Víctor Manuel Vucetich took charge ahead of a Matchday 5 contest against Atlético de San Luis.
A persistent coronavirus break-out and disciplinary problems slowed the club’s adaptation to Vucetich’s style. It wasn’t until after a 1-0 loss to bitter rivals América left Guadalajara in 8th place with only 6 games remaining that the Chivas began to show signs of life.
A 2-1-0 stretch was blunted by injuries and additional off-the-field problems. Several players broke team rules by partying up after the Oct. 17 victory in the “Clásico Tapatío,” and the consequences were severe. Midfielder Dieter Villalpando was suspended after sexual assault charges were filed, while three other players – Eduardo “Chofis” López, José Juan Vázquez and Alexis Peña – were suspended for violating team policies related to the pandemic.
A comeback win in the season finale boosted Guadalajara’s playoff prospects (a loss would have dropped them to the No. 10 seed), but enthusiasm was quickly doused during the just-concluded FIFA break.
The Chivas’ top two offensive threats have now been ruled out due to injury. Alexis Vega suffered a severe ankle injury while on duty with El Tri’s Under-23 squad. He’s done for the playoffs. Just a day later, star striker J.J. Macías aggravated a thigh strain and he will be unavailable this weekend.
Coach Vucetich suddenly has limited options and his in-game adjustments will have to be more about tactics than personnel. The Chivas will have to rely on Angel Saldívar to lead the attack. “Chelo” was a hero in the season finale, sparking the club’s late three-goal outburst, but he is only recently back from injury and might not be fit to play 90 minutes.
The circumstances place wingers Isaac Brizuela and Uriel Antuna in the spotlight. The speedy playmakers will be called upon to inspire the offense and find holes in the Rayos’ vulnerable back line.
Another key player is midfielder Fernando Beltrán who has struggled with fitness issues of his own that started with a debilitating battle against Covid-19. “El Nene” is a fine possession player who can control tempo and exploit defenses with his passing and ball-handling. He might struggle to play vertically unless Saldívar can create space for himself.
Because of the uncertainty in attack, there will be added pressure on the Guadalajara defense to play error-free soccer. Goalie Raúl Gudiño has been steady since taking over after Matchday 6 and the central defense pairing of Hiram Mier and Gilberto Sepúlveda has been scary good at times.
Captain Jesús Molina will patrol the space in front of the back line while fullbacks Jesús Sánchez and Miguel Ponce (or Cristián Calderón) must secure the flanks and protect against crosses.
Vucetich’s strategy will be apparent by his starting alignment. Will he play with a single striker (Saldívar) or will aging veteran Oribe Peralta be called upon to provide offense. Will the flashy Calderón get the nod in midfield or will the more creative Jesús Angulo play behind Saldívar?
Will the Chivas turn to a 5-man back line and insert Antonio Briseño alongside Mier and “Tiba,” looking to attack on the counter?