Monterrey ended Cruz Azul’s reign as Liga MX champs in the wildcard round, a fitting end to a lackluster season for the Cementeros who didn’t put up much of a title defense. The ninth-seeded Rayados now have a quarterfinal date against No. 2 Atlas.
In Sunday’s other Liga MX wildcard match, the Pumas picked up right where they left off in their season finale, flowing freely through midfield and attacking in waves. The 11th-seed knocked out sixth-seeded Toluca in a game that was not as close as the 2-1 final score.
The wildcard results set up a “Clásico Capitalino” in the quarterfinals with No. 1 América taking on Mexico City rivals UNAM. In addition to Atlas-Monterrey, the other “Liguilla” pairings are No. 3 León vs No. 7 Puebla and No. 4 Tigres taking on No. 5 Santos Laguna.
The Liga MX quarterfinals are a two-game (home-and-home) series in which the lower seed must outscore the higher seed to advance. There is no away-goals rule in effect.
From Kings of Liga MX Hill to early dismissal
Cruz Azul coach Juan Reynoso received plenty of credit for his line-up rotations and in-game adjustments last season, but this season he seemed too eager to prove he was smarter than the average coach.
This time around, his constant line-up tweaks appeared to have no rhyme or reason and there was often discernible tactical disconnect where Cementeros players appeared confused about their responsibilities.
The Cementeros’ starting 11 against Monterrey was truly puzzling. Three regulars – striker Jonathan Rodríguez, winger Roberto Alvarado and midfield stud Luis Romo – were left on the bench while Santi Giménez was tasked with the role of lone striker. Giménez has been ineffective as a point man, performing moderately better as a junior partner up front, and he was out of his depth Sunday night, even badly missing a sitter that could have tied the game midway through the second half.
Cruz Azul’s undoing was in large part due to the dismal first half put in by veteran defender Julio César Domínguez. “Cata” conceded an early penalty with a careless handball on a low cross, then got turned around by Maxi Meza who created space to unleash a bullet from 18 meters to put the Rayados up 2-0 before the half-hour mark.
Reynoso essentially admitted his line-up error, sending in Rodríguez and Alvarado a few minutes later. Cruz Azul had narrowed the deficit thanks to a questionable penalty call but never was truly able to swing the momentum back their way until the score had gotten out of hand.
Rogelio Funes Mori collected his brace just before the hour mark and Vincent Janssen completed the 4-1 rout with a header in minute 85.
Pumas throttle Toluca
Late-qualifier UNAM dominated the higher-seeded Diablos for the opening 60 minutes of their Liga MX wildcard match, netting twice but squandering three other great scoring chances. Then Alan Mozo almost went from hero to goat.
UNAM’s frisky fullback had been terrorizing the left side of the Toluca defense all game, rampaging up and down the flank. His one-man counterattack produced the Pumas’ second goal when Juan Ignacio Dinenno rocketed home a short clearance after Diogo’s initial shot bounded off the crossbar.
Only minutes later, Mozo coughed up the ball wide right, then compounded his error by inadvertently blocking the ensuing cross with his right arm. Haret Ortega converted the spot kick to cut the difference in half, and for a moment Toluca was able to press forward with possession.
The Pumas quickly recovered, however, stifling Diablos build-ups and racing out on blazing counter-attacks off of Toluca set pieces, Mozo frequently joining the charge. In fact, the peripatetic Mozo made a bid for an assist with a splendid lead pass to Dinenno in added time.
Toluca right back Raúl López sent a sharp-angle backside volley off the outside of the post in minute 83, but that was as close as the Diablos would come to equalizing, an outcome they did not deserve.
Former Diablo Leo López had opened the scoring in minute 16 with a brilliant solo effort. The UNAM midfielder swiped the ball from Rubens Sambueza near midfield, hustled to the loose ball and arced a 50-meter shot over keeper Luis García who had strayed too far off his line. Despite this, García acquitted himself well, making five fine saves while under serious duress for the first hour of the match.
Another Toluca alum – Pumas goalie Alfredo Talavera – also had a hand in sending his former fans home in despair. “Tala” made two brilliant saves and commanded his area with aplomb, corralling every cross that strayed into his airspace.