When the final weekend of the Liga MX season kicked off on Thursday night, the Pumas found themselves in 15th place, 3 points out of the final wildcard spot. It sure seemed like last season’s losing finalist would have to watch the postseason from home.
That all changed on Saturday night as the three teams immediately in front of the Pumas stumbled, giving “los Auriazules” a chance to snatch the final remaining playoff berth.
That’s right. A win and they’re in! But it won’t be as easy as all that. Or will it?
The Pumas host América in the 118th regular-season meeting between these two Mexico City rivals, a battle royale known as “el Clásico Capitalino.”
Pumas-Aguilas to battle in Liga MX regular-season finale
The “Capital Classic” is always an intense match regardless of the circumstances and UNAM’s last-gasp shot at a wildcard heightens the magnitude further.
Pumas coach Andrés Lillini must throw all caution to the wind and go on the attack from the opening whistle. The Pumas must score or their season comes to an end. This will be easier said than done as “los universitarios” have the worst offense in Liga MX (10 goals in 16 games) and América boasts a rugged defense.
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Perhaps Lillini and crew can hope that coach Santiago Solari opts to save his top players for Wednesday’s second-leg CCL match against the Portland Timbers. After all, América is locked into the second seed win, lose or draw.
Perhaps Solari will submit a line-up card littered with back-ups, but that won’t matter. Anytime an América player steps on the pitch and sees that iconic Pumas jersey, it’s “go time.” Nothing would please Aguilas Nation like denying their bitter rivals a spot in the Liga MX playoffs.
Beyond the emotions of playing in a “Clásico Capitalino,” several Aguilas are eager to prove they deserve playing time. In addition, starting striker Henry Martín is fit again and coach Solari might be inclined to give him some game time.
Other players to keep an eye on are striker Federico Viñas who has dropped down the pecking order (he has scored in each of the past three Capital Classics, however) and winger Leo Suárez (he lost his spot in the starting 11 early on but injuries in midfield have given him a chance to declare his readiness for playing time in the “Liguilla”).
Coach Lillini will no doubt press the attack, a strategy that could favor América’s preference for playing off the counter. Juan Ignacio Dinenno will hope strike partner Gabriel Torres steps up while playmakers Fabio Álvarez and Sebastián Saucedo must produce in the final third. Super-sub Juan Iturbe might get an early call if an offensive spark is required.
There’s no problem at the back as UNAM boasts one of the best defenses in Liga MX (11 goals allowed) and keeper Alfredo Talavera will be angling for a league-leading ninth clean sheet (“Tala” is currently tied with Cruz Azul’s “Chuy” Corona for most shut-outs with eight).
Here’s hoping ref Jorge Isaac Rojas is up to the task as this game should be a high-intensity affair with plenty of end-to-end action and a fair share of heated clashes.
Puebla, Santos battle for final first-round bye
Fourth-place Puebla visits fifth-place Santos Laguna with a Top 4 seed on the line.
The visiting Camoteros need only a tie (which would boost them into third place) while the host Guerreros must win to earn the No. 4 seed and a pass directly to the Liga MX quarterfinals.
Both clubs have been pleasant surprises. Puebla has punched above its weight the entire Guardianes 2021 season (“La Franja” has the second-lowest payroll in Liga MX) while coach Guillermo Almada has had to rely on the Santos academy pipeline as injuries decimated his roster in midseason.
Puebla is led by Santiago Ormeño who is chasing the Liga MX scoring title (he needs 2 goals to catch Toluca’s Alexis Canelo who leads the league with 11 goals), while Nicolás Lacarmón is the front-runner for Liga MX Coach of the Year.
Although Santos fans have been thrilled by the production of youngster Santi Muñoz, Eduardo Aguirre, Omar Campos and Jesús Ocejo, they are no doubt excited by the reappearance of midfielders Fernando Gorriarán and Diego Valdés, both of whom were feared lost for the season.
Ref Erick Miranda will be in charge of what should be a highly entertaining match.