Underdog Puebla takes on favored América; Cementeros face Monterrey

América dominated the second half of then Liga MX season and finished the Apertura 2022 on an 11-1-0 run. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
América dominated the second half of then Liga MX season and finished the Apertura 2022 on an 11-1-0 run. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
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Puebla’s Maxi Araujo (right) must have a big night if Puebla is to maintains hopes for its first Liga MX title since 1990. (Photo by Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Half of Liga MX Big 4 in action tonight

Only two members of the Liga MX Big 4 are alive as the “Liguilla” kicks off tonight in Puebla. América and Cruz Azul are still chasing the trophy, while Guadalajara is licking its wounds after Sunday’s elimination (by Puebla) and UNAM is looking for a new coach after face-planting this season.

Top-seeded América will take the pitch at Estadio Cuauhtémoc as heavy favorites over the ninth-seeded Camoteros of Club Puebla. The Aguilas finished the Apertura 2022 atop the Liga MX standings with 38 points while Puebla was 16 points adrift.

The teams met in the season finale just 12 days ago at this same venue with “Los Azulcremas” holding off Puebla 2-1. Roger Martínez and Álvaro Fidalgo were the goal-scorers for América, while defender Israel Reyes countered late to narrow the deficit.

Speaking of the prized Puebla defender, América is reportedly very close to acquiring the 22-year-old back-liner.

América has eliminated Puebla in three of their four previous playoff encounters, including last season when these clubs met at the same stage and fourth-seeded América got past “La Franja,” the No. 5 seed, to end the Camoteros’ Clausura 2022 campaign.

Can Puebla bring the soaring Aguilas back to earth?

Puebla will want to head to Estadio Azteca with an advantage, if at all possible, and to do so they must get off to a fast start. But that will be easier said than done as both teams scored 16 first-half goals this season, tied for most in Liga MX. And the Aguilas added another 22 goals during the second half of games while the Camoteros only managed 9 goals after the break.

And we can’t forget that América ended the regular season on a 12-game unbeaten streak (11-1-0) while Puebla has the fewest wins (4) of the eight “Liguilla” participants

Reyes and Camoteros line-mates Diego de Buen, Lucas Maia and Gastón Silva will have to figure out a way to control striker Henry Martín, while also slowing down the headlong rushes led by Diego Valdés and Alejandro Zendejas. And midfield menace Fidalgo also deserves special attention.

Camoteros coach Nicolás Larcamón will need inspired performances from Maxi Araujo and Jordi Cortizo and also hope that his striker, Martín Barragán, can shake free of the rugged Aguilas defense crew.

If “La Franja” can manage to take a lead to Estadio Azteca on Saturday, they’ll have a fighting chance. If not, the Puebla front office might be making some wholesale changes over the winter break.

Can ‘La Máquina’ continue its revival?

In order to reach the semifinals, No. 7 seed Cruz Azul must defeat No. 2 Monterrey at least once. That might be a tall order as the Rayados had the fewest losses (2) in Liga MX this season.

Since taking over as interim coach back on Matchday 11, Raúl Gutiérrez has led Cruz Azul to a 6-1-1 record including last Saturday’s 1-0 wildcard win over León.

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Germán Berterame tormented the Cruz Azul defense during the Rayados’ 3-2 win on Sept. 6. (Photo by Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

However, the lone loss in the Cementeros’ recent streak came against Monterrey on Matchday 13. It was only the third game in charge for “El Potro” and his men have rebounded nicely.

Monterrey leads the all-time postseason rivalry 3-2, most recently dismantling the Cementeros 4-1 a year ago in an Apertura 2021 wildcard match. The Rayados last faced “La Máquina” in a Liga MX quarterfinal series 17 years ago, with Cruz Azul emerging from the dust based on its higher seeding as the two clubs played to a 3-3 draw over 180 minutes.

In order to remain in the hunt for the club’s 10th Liga MX championship, Cruz Azul must test the Monterrey defense (which will be missing central defender César Montes) and not allow the Rayados playmakers to string together too many passes. No easy task.

Germán Berterame, Arturo González, Maxi Meza and Rodrigo Aguirre are a handful for any team, but the Cementeros were the second worst defense in Liga MX (34 goals allowed) and the back line has been beset by injuries throughout the Apertura 2022.

Juan Escobar returned last weekend after a midseason knee sprain but Ramiro Funes Mori came up lame on Matchday 16 (hamstring), and an ankle injury will keep youngster Rafael Guerrero out for the remainder of the Liga MX playoffs.

Since that 3-2 loss at Monterrey on Sept. 6, “El Potro” has switched to a 5-man back line which likely means Escobar, Julio César Domínguez and Luis Abram starting in front of Jesús Corona with Ignacio Rivero and teenager Rodrigo Huescas on the wings.

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A steady defensive showing will be required if Cruz Azul hopes to travel to Estadio BBVA Bancomer with hopes of advancing to the Liga MX Final Four.