No. 3 León, No. 4 Tigres set to join Liga MX playoff party

Víctor Dávila of Leon figures to face tight marking from Puebla, just as he did back on Matchday 15 in León 1-0 victory. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)
Víctor Dávila of Leon figures to face tight marking from Puebla, just as he did back on Matchday 15 in León 1-0 victory. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /
Liga MX Liguila 3
Tigres winger Florian Thauvin (left) is set to return for the Liga MX playoffs after a long injury absence. In his club’s 1-1 draw with Santos back on Aug. 7, the Frenchman saw plenty of Omar Campos. (Photo by JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images) /

Two first-year coaches lead their seeded teams into quarterfinal showdowns on the road Thursday night as the Liga MX playoffs start to heat up.

Ariel Holan (León) and Miguel Herrera (Tigres) have big shoes to fill in replacing legendary coaches, although Herrera is a legend in his own right.

Holan took over for Ignacio Ambriz who turned the Esmeraldas into an offensive dynamo in leading “La Fiera” to the top seed a spot in the Liga MX final a year after stepping into the job. “Nacho” and “The Green Machine” hoisted the league trophy a 18 months later, defeating UNAM in the Guardianes 2020 final.

Herrera succeeded Ricardo Ferretti who guided the Tigres to five Liga MX titles and five other pieces of hardware (including the 2020 Concacaf Champions League) during the 11-year term as Top Tigre that ended this past summer.

No. 3 León at No. 7 Puebla to open Thursday Liga MX playoff action

Nacho Ambriz set the bar rather high for his successor, but Ariel Holan has the Esmeraldas in a now-familiar position – a top seed preparing for a long playoff run. But it didn’t seem likely at times.

Captain Luis Montes missed 11 games with injuries (he is expected back in training, but is not in game shape) and another key member of Nacho-ball – hybrid fullback/midfielder Fernando Navarro – returned to action after a six-month absence following knee surgery.

The injuries and absences (wingers Angel Mena and Jean Meneses, plus defender William Tesillo missed some time due to international duty, while Joel Campbell and Yairo Moreno were sent elsewhere) made for an erratic transition. A four-game midseason winless streak saw “La Fiera” stuck in eighth place, but that was as low as they would go.

A 4-1-1 close lifted the Esmeraldas into third, earning them a first-round playoff bye. Navarro played in the final three games, getting 108 minutes and contributing an assist, flashing the skills that earned him the 2020-2021 Best Liga MX Fullback award.

While unlikely that Montes and Navarro see 90 minutes of action quite yet, forward Víctor Dávila (hat trick in season finale), Mena and Omar Fernández form a dangerous trio up front with Santi Ormeño, Meneses and Emanuel Gigliotti poised to provide offense off the bench.

The Esmeraldas defense (14 goals) is in playoff form and goalie Rodolfo Cota is a security blanket between the pipes.

Facing Puebla at this stage might be a good omen for León – the Esmeraldas defeated the Camoteros in the quarterfinals en route to their Guardianes 2020 title – but it won’t be easy.

The reigning Liga MX Coach of the Year – Argentine Nicolás Larcamón – is poised to match wits with countryman Holan.

Larcamón will get the opportunity to scheme against his former pupils – Ormeño and Fernández were stars of last season’s improbable run to the semifinals. Without those two (and fullback/winger Salvador Reyes who was sold to América), the Puebla coach struggled to find a line-up that could successfully carry out his tactical requirements. Once he identified his starters and his top rotation players, Puebla climbed the Liga MX table, finishing 7th despite featuring one of the lowest payrolls in Liga MX.

The Camoteros are disciplined, rugged and persistent, hectoring the opposition for 90 minutes. They struggle to score, but rarely make mistakes on the back end. They will need to head to León with no worse than a draw if they hope to advance to the Final Four.

León has gotten past Puebla each of the two previous times they were paired in the postseason. In the Guardianes 2020 quarterfinals, the Camoteros held court in the first leg, winning 2-1 at Estadio Cuauhtémoc before falling in León 2-0. Their only other playoff meeting was in the 1992 finals with León coming away with a 2-0 aggregate victory

No. 4 Tigres at No. 5 Santos Laguna

The Miguel Herrera Era did not get off to a smooth start. When the Liga MX season opened, star striker André-Pierre Gignac and new acquisition Florian Thauvin were in Tokyo with the French Olympic team.

Gignac returned injured and only managed to play in eight Liga MX games this season. Thauvin played even fewer games (7), suffering a thigh injury on Sept. 26 that turned out to be worse than originally diagnosed. The French winger was only declared fully fit this week and is expected to be available to face Santos.

With Gignac back at his best, the Tigres expect to attack with more confidence, especially with Nico López earning the confidence of coach Herrera. “Diente” often found himself in Ferretti’s doghouse for lax training effort, but “El Piojo” has given him greater leeway and the Tigres have been rewarded on the pitch as López led the team – and Liga MX – with 9 goals.

But it won’t be as easy as that. Santos Laguna plays an aggressive, pressing style that forces turnovers. The Tigres will have to take care of the ball, especially in their defensive third, and that has been a weakness this season.

Santos is eager to get back to the championship game (the Guerreros lost to Cruz Azul in the Guardianes 2021 Final) and coach Guillermo Almada loves to attack, with or without the ball.

The midfield battle involving the Santos duo of Fernando Gorriarán and Alan Cervantes against Guido Pizarro and Rafa Carioca will be key to this series.

The Tigres tandem must slow passage through the middle of the field while also limiting Diego Valdés’ opportunities. Valdés is the Guerreros’ playmaker and he’ll look to spring speedy wingers Ayrton Preciado and Juan Otero, while Eduardo Aguirre will serve as point man.

Almada has cultivated fine talent from the Santos academy and fullback Omar Campos will test his Tigres’ counterpart, Luis Rodríguez. Teen phenom Jordan Carrillo and Jesús Ocejo and veteran Alessio da Silva are available off the bench.

Next. Goals at a premium in Liga MX quarterfinals. dark

This season’s meeting marks the seventh time the Tigres and Santos have met in the Liga MX payoffs, with the Guerreros owing a 4-2 advantage. Santos has won each of the past three playoff series against their northern rivals, the last clash coming in the Clausura 2018 quarterfinals after which the Guerreros went on to claim their most recent Liga MX title.