León leads Chivas, two Mexico City clubs into Liga MX semis

Top-seeded León remains the favorite to hoist the Liga MX trophy. (Photo VICTOR CRUZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Top-seeded León remains the favorite to hoist the Liga MX trophy. (Photo VICTOR CRUZ/AFP via Getty Images) /

Guadalajara is lone wildcard team to survive quarterfinals

We’ve reached the Final Four of the Guardianes 2020 season and soccer fans have little to complain about as the semifinals feature three of the Big 4 most popular Liga MX teams plus León. Oh, and by the way, León has been the best team in the league for two months now.

No. 1 León vs. No. 7 Guadalajara

The underdog Chivas host the top-seeded Esmeraldas on Wednesday to kick off the semifinal stage, trying to become only the fourth wild-card team to win a Liga MX title. But it won’t be easy.

Not only is “El Rebaño Sagrado” up against the smooth-running León machine, but they’ve lost yet another player. Winger Isaac Brizuela has been ruled out of both legs after testing positive for Covid-19.

Coach Víctor Manuel Vucetich was already working with a shrinking roster after four players were kicked off the team for violating team rules, although his two starting strikers should be available for duty. Alexis Vega (ankle) and J.J. Macías (thigh) are both expected back from injury row and must be productive if the Chivas are to pull off the upset.

Cristián Calderón was the hero of the quarterfinals upset of hated América and he’ll be closely watched any time he crosses midfield. His three long-distance golazos against the Aguilas surely got León defenders’ attention. Goalie Raúl Gudiño was a hero in the first leg against América and he’ll have to be on his toes against “La Fiera” and the multi-pronged attack that has bedeviled so many opponents.

León looked rusty against Puebla in the first leg of the quarterfinal series, falling behind 2-0 before settling for a 2-1 loss. The 17-day layoff between the end of the Guardianes 2020 and their first playoff game hurt the Esmeraldas and their 12-game unbeaten streak came crashing to a halt. But a dominant 2-0 home win in the return match sent them into the semifinals.

MVP candidate Luis Montes was not as impeccable as he had been during the stretch run but the Chivas know they must contain him or lose. It’s that simple. Coach Ignacio Ambriz will have his team prepared to defend the counter-attack and goalie Rodolfo Cota – the starting netminder for the Chivas when they won the 2017 Liga X trophy – will have to be on his toes.

The return match is set for Saturday night.

No. 2 UNAM vs No. 4 Cruz Azul

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This series offers Liga MX fans a Mexico City derby, guaranteeing that at least one club from the nation’s capital will be in the Final. These two faced off in a season finale that saw UNAM score twice late to steal a 2-1 win while denying the Cementeros the No. 2 seed.

The Pumas have been a steady team all season, losing only once (tied with León for fewest losses in Liga MX) while confounding the pundits who predicted the club would finish in the middle of the table.

The “Felinos” overcame the resignation of their coach just days before the season began and demonstrated grit and discipline under replacement coach Andrés Lillini who was summoned from the Pumas’ academy where he was presiding over the Under-20 and Under-17 teams.

UNAM is led be a two-headed strike force – Juan Ignacio Dinenno and Carlos González – with Facundo Waller attacking from the flank and Favio Alvarez lurking in the space behind the forwards.

The central defense pairing of Sebastián Freire and Johan Vázquez has been sturdy all season, especially so down the stretch in the absence of goalie Alfredo Talavera. But there’s good news on that front, too. “Tala” was originally expected to miss the entire playoffs, but club officials have hinted that the veteran keeper could be available for Sunday’s return match.

Back-up goalie Julio González has been an excellent stand-in (he was the winner in the season finale against the Cementeros) and he’ll be between the pipes at least one more time. Also key for the Pumas has been the recovery of form by right fullback Alan Mozo. The academy product was in the dog house early in the season but has since returned to form and his rampaging runs down the flank have unnerved many an opponent.

Cruz Azul slumped down the stretch, losing four of its last five games (three by shut-out), but responded well in the quarterfinals vs the Tigres. The 3-1 first-leg win held up, but the offensive miscues that bedeviled the Cementeros at the end of the season returned in the second leg.

Coach Robert Siboldi’s switch from two strikers to a single striker (Liga MX scoring champions Jonathan Rodríguez) might have to be revisited if goals are needed. Youngster Santi Giménez could be the solution.

“La Máquina Azul” should enjoy more possession against the Pumas (Tigres dominated the ball against the Cementeros – 71% possession overall in the two matches) but they’d better be more accurate with their passing (less than 68% pass completion rate in the quarterfinals). The Pumas have been very opportunistic all season, so turnovers are a no-no.

Look for the Cementeros to flood midfield, with Luis Romo and Orbelín Pineda probing for soft spots in the Pumas defense. At the back, Julio César Domínguez and Pablo Aguilar will be tasked with marking Dinenno and González. This epic battle could determine who advances to the Final.

Next. Final Liga MX Power Rankings. dark

Liga MX Notes

The three wildcard teams that have won Liga MX titles are Pachuca (Invierno 1999), Morelia (Invierno 2000) and the Chivas (Apertura 2006). … In a bit of an oddity, Guadalajara and León have never met in the playoffs before. … The Pumas and Cruz Azul are meeting in a knockout stage for the ninth time. The Pumas have advanced in five of those previous eight encounters. … Two coaching changes to report: Gabriel Caballero out at FC Juárez, Luis Fernando Tena in; Hernán Cristante returns to helm Toluca (the legendary Diablos goalie managed his former team from 2016-2019).