Undercard of Liga MX quarterfinals is top shelf

Cruz Azul, Tigres have old scores to settle

The second set of quarterfinals in the Liga MX playoffs might not have the glamor of a postseason Super Clásico, but both series promise quality play. I’m here to tell you that the Cruz Azul-Tigres and Pumas-Pachuca match-ups will provide 360 minutes of entertainment.

Of course, all the talk will be about Guadalajara’s 1-0 win over higher-seeded América in the 239th Super Clásico. In Wednesday’s other Liga MX playoff contest, No. 12 seed Puebla stunned top-seeded León with two early goals, then held on for a 2-1 win.

The Tigres-Cruz Azul tilt kicks off the Thursday night calendar and this No. 6 vs. No. 4 pairing promises some real fireworks, and maybe not just on the scoresheet.

Back on July 15, the Cementeros and Tigres had a post-game altercation following Cruz Azul’s shoot-out victory in the preseason Copa GNP semifinals. Tigers skipper Guido Pizarro and Robert Siboldi squared off amid accusations that the Cruz Azul manager had mocked Pizarro and his mates.

A scuffle ensued and harsh words were exchanged. Tigres star Javier Aquino savaged his old colors with a “What have you won lately!” taunt. The spritely winger was swiftly and roundly criticized by Cruz Azul legends and his former teammates who slammed him for dissing the institution which launched his career.

“La Máquina Azul” – with whom Aquino debuted in 2010 – has not won a Liga MX crown since 1997. The Cementeros did claim a Copa MX title and the Concacaf Champions League trophy in 2013, five months after Aquino departed for Spain in January 2013.

But Aquino’s sneering gibe referenced his four Liga MX medals and three Concacaf Champions League rings in the past five years with Tigres. In that time, Cruz Azul has added nothing but the MX trophy (Apertura 2018).

The “Máquina” looked poised for a title run last season before the Clausura 2020 was canceled due to the emerging pandemic.

The Tigres earned a measure of revenge for the Copa GNP incident on Oct. 17, blanking the Cementeros 2-0 in Estadio Azteca. That loss was Cruz Azul’s second in a row and they tumbled out of first place into fourth by finishing the Guardianes 2020 on a 1-1-4 run.

The Tigres actually leap-frogged Cruz Azul thanks to that Matchday 14 win, but did not win again, a stumble that dropped “Tuca” Ferretti’s men into sixth place.

On Sunday, the Tigres held off a feisty Toluca 11, escaping “El Volcán” with a 2-1 victory.

And that’s how we find ourselves here today, with the No. 4 Cementeros visiting “El Volcán” – the Estadio Universitario outside Monterrey in the first leg of an attractive quarterfinal series. Incidentally, Cruz Azul is 1-4-0 in their last five visits to the Tigres stadium.

And Cementeros fans are desperate for an end to the club’s 23-year Liga MX title drought. A road win in the first leg would be a huge lift for the Men in Blue.

Pumas at Pachuca

This series could be the most exciting of the entire Liguilla, pitting the opportunistic Pumas against the irrepressible Tuzos.

UNAM lost only once all season, while Pachuca burst into full bloom on Saturday, brushing aside Santos in their Liga MX wildcard match.

Pumas goalie Julio González will be staring into the spotlight as he must replace the injured Alfredo Talavera between the pipes. “Tala” was in the MVP conversation at the midpoint of the Guardianes 2020 but missed three games since the calendar turned to October and the veteran keeper is set to miss the entire playoffs.

González went 1-2-0 in his three starts in place of the veteran keeper.

Pachuca showed glimpses of tremendous potential throughout the season – including a 7-game unbeaten streak that began in September and lasted through all of October. But no doubt their dismantling of favored Santos Laguna by a 3-0 scoreline sure got the Pumas’ attention.

Víctor Guzmán was the Man of the Match in the wildcard game and he is rounding into fine form after being reinstated in late September following a 9-month drugs-related suspension.

“El Pocho” missed Monday practice citing muscle fatigue but was back in training on Tuesday,

The Tuzos defense and goalie Oscar Ustari have been strong all season as Pachuca tied league-leading León with fewest goals allowed (14).

The Pumas are led by strikers Juan Ignacio Dinenno (10 goals) and Carlos González, setting up an epic battle with Pachuca central defenders Oscar Murillo and Gustavo Cabral.

Both teams feature youngsters in midfield (keep an eye on Pachuca’s Erick Sánchez and UNAM’s Erik Lira) and both love to play in transition.

Expect this to be a taut, tense two-game series. Recent history also bears this out as each team is 3-3-4 against the other in the past 10 matches between the two.

Wednesday’s Liga MX Results

In minute 81, sub Cristián Calderón collected a clearance off a goal kick deep in América territory, controlled, moved left, then blasted a shot into the Upper-90 to give the No. 7 seed Chivas a well-deserved 1-0 win over No. 3 América.

The rare playoff victory against the Aguilas ended Guadalajara’s three-game losing streak in the Liga MX Super Clásico. The all-time playoff record in this national derby is now 15 wins América, 5 wins Chivas and 5 ties.

The return leg will take place at Estadio Azteca on Saturday night.

In Estadio Cuauhtémoc, host Puebla got off to a great start, scoring in the first minute and then getting an own goal in minute 37 but top-seeded León narrowed the gap before halftime.

The heavily favored Esmeraldas pressed the attack throughout the second half, but could not find the equalizer as Puebla goalie Nicolás Vikonis came up with 6 big saves to preserve the 2-1 win. The Camoteros look willing to continue playing the Liguilla Cinderalla.

León hosts the second leg on Saturday evening.

Rayados give Mohamed walking papers after dismal 2020

Less than one year after guiding Monterrey to the Apertura 2019 Liga MX title, Antonio “El Turco” Mohamed was sent packing. The Rayados boast the league’s biggest payroll yet were KO’d from the playoffs in the wildcard round by 12th-seeded Puebla.

The disappointing end to the Guardianes 2020 season comes on the heels of a disastrous Clausura 2020. Monterrey failed to win a single game, going 0-5-5 in the start to its title defense before the Clausura was canceled due to the onset of the pandemic.

The Rayados were inconsistent again this season, settling for the No. 5 seed  with a mediocre 8-5-4 record.

Mohamed did hoist the Copa MX trophy last month, but that is considered minor hardware for a team that spent $82.1 million dollars in wages ($13 million more than América, the team with the second-biggest payroll).