Two Liga MX heavyweights face early dismissal

Monterrey hopes to replicate its Concacaf Champions League success it enjoyed against Cruz Azul success when the two Liga MX heavyweights square off in tonight's wildcard match. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Monterrey hopes to replicate its Concacaf Champions League success it enjoyed against Cruz Azul success when the two Liga MX heavyweights square off in tonight's wildcard match. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Liga MX wildcard weekend3
Defending Liga MX champs Cruz Azul left the Estadio Azteca pitch in shame on Sept. 16 after Monterrey trounced them 4-1, bouncing the Cementeros from the CCL semifinals. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Two top title contenders square off in Estadio Azteca tonight, both trying to extend mediocre campaigns as Liga MX Wildcard Weekend continues on Sunday.

Defending champs Cruz Azul and Concacaf Champions League holders Monterrey were among a small handful of preseason favorites, but one will go home early to suffer unsavory post-mortems looking to identify who to blame.

Before the No. 8 Cementeros and the No. 9 Rayados tangle on the Azteca pitch, No. 6 Toluca will host No. 11 UNAM at “La Bombonera” in the State of Mexico capital.

Last night, the first two wildcard matches held form, with the higher seeds advancing as fifth-seeded Santos Laguna eliminated Atlético de San Luis while No. 7 Puebla needed penalty kicks to stave off an upset bid from the Chivas.

Wealthy Liga MX clubs played shorthanded

The busy schedule caused by pandemic-induced delays of World Cup qualifying wreaked havoc with big Liga MX clubs and Cruz Azul and Monterrey struggled the most.

Both clubs were missing at least four key players through Matchday 3 (away on national team duty at Gold Cup or Tokyo Olympics) and also had multiple starters needing rest after condensed Conmebol and Concacaf qualifying schedules.

Inconsistency was a constant and muscle fatigue was a regular complaint, as neither team could sustain any rhythm during the Apertura 2021.

Now, one of these clubs is going home short of the “Liguilla” and will have to endure heavy criticism during the winter break.

Monterrey boasts the highest payroll in Liga MX ($98.2 million dollars) but an early season four-game winless streak was followed by a four-game in October that nearly cost Javier Aguirre his job. The 1-0 victory in the Concacaf Champions League final on Oct. 28 relieved “El Vasco” of some pressure, but a No. 9 playoff seeding is a disappointment no matter how you look at it.

Cruz Azul entered the season hoping for a repeat, but injuries and absences took a heavy toll, especially as it scuttled the line-up rotations that proved so successful for the Cementeros during their run to their ninth Liga MX championship last season.

Coach Juan Reynoso tinkered with line-ups and formations, but “La Máquina” simply never revved up. Top scorer Jonathan Rodríguez did not score from open play all season (all three goals came from the penalty spot) and young gun Santi Giménez was off target most of the campaign.

Cementeros have revenge in mind

Monterrey had their way with Cruz Azul this season, knocking “The Blue Machine” out of the Concacaf Champions League tournament at the semifinal stage. The Rayados edged the Cementeros 1-0 at home in the first leg, then smacked Reynoso & Co in the return leg at Estadio Azteca by a 4-1 score line.

In between, the two big clubs (Cruz Azul claims the third-highest payroll in Liga MX at $86.7 million dollars – top-seeded América is second with a $94 million-dollar wage bill) played to a 1-1 draw in a Matchday 5 contest. The Rayados stole a point when young defender José Alvarado nodded home a corner kick in minute 90+1.

Alvarado could play a key role in tonight’s match since Monterrey will be without starting defenders César Montes (knee) and skipper Stefan Medina (thigh).

Cruz Azul is expected at full strength with all eight international stars available after the FIFA break (Orbelín Pineda, Roberto Alvarado, Julio César Domínguez were with El Tri, Yoshimar Yotún, “Cabecita” Rodríguez, Bryan Angulo and Juan Escobar with Conmebol sides) but are not a home favorite after going just 3-3-2 in Estadio Azteca in Liga MX play.

As for the Rayados, they won just one Liga MX road game (at Santos on Sept. 26), posting a 1-5-3 record away from home. Still, this should be a high-flying game for 90 minutes with plenty of stars looking to make up for sub-par showings during the Apertura 2021.

No. 11 Pumas at No. 6 Toluca

These two teams closed out the Apertura 2021 heading in opposite directions, Toluca in a prolonged slump and the Pumas making a mad dash to the finish line to claim a wildcard berth as the clock struck midnight.

The Diablos defeated UNAM on Matchday 7 (Aug. 28) by a 2-1 score, but won only once more after that, staggering to the finish line on an 8-game winless streak (0-4-4). Toluca had been in third place as late as Matchday 13 before its collapse.

The Pumas, meanwhile tore it up down the stretch, finishing on a 4-1-1 streak that culminated with a miraculous come-back victory over visiting Cruz Azul in the season finale. “Los felinos” overturned a 3-1 halftime deficit with goals from Favio Álvarez and a brace from late-September acquisition Diogo to claim the final wildcard spot.

After a Matchday 12 loss to América, UNAM was in 17th place with a 1-5-5 record (their Matchday 11 contest had been postponed), 13 points behind Toluca who stood at 6-3-3.

Next. Puebla knocks out Chivas; Santos wins. dark

Toluca was only 3-4-1 at home, while the Pumas have been kittens away from the CU (1-3-4). This game will be intense and physical. Fernando Hernández will be in charge of keeping the peace on the pitch.