Monterrey must rediscover midseason form or risk mortification

Harold Preciado (center) and Santos are hoping to pull off the upset for the second weekend in a row. (Photo by Manuel Guadarrama/Getty Images)
Harold Preciado (center) and Santos are hoping to pull off the upset for the second weekend in a row. (Photo by Manuel Guadarrama/Getty Images) /
America Monterrey quarters
MVP candidate Henry Martín might be unavailable for América (concussion protocol) tonight but the Aguilas are poised to advance to the semifinals. Monterrey and Santos Laguna face off in Saturday’s other quarterfinal series. (Photo by Ricardo Hernandez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Favorites Monterrey and América look to move on

Although América and Tigres look like shoo-ins to reach the Final Four, we’ll properly know our first Liga MX semifinalist around 9 pm tonight when the referee blows his whistle in Monterrey.

That’s about when the Monterrey-Santos Laguna game will come to an end. Although the top-seeded Rayados are heavily favored to advance, No. 12 Santos made them look downright ordinary on Wednesday.

The scene then switches from Estadio BBVA Bancomer to Estadio Azteca where the No. 2 Aguilas welcome Atlético de San Luis to “El Coloso de Santa Úrsula.”

The Tuneros have a tough hill to climb as América won the first leg up in San Luis by a comfortable 3-1 margin. Atleti must defeat the Aguilas by three goals and “los azulcremas” have not lost at home by that margin since Necaxa handed them a 3-0 spanking back on Feb. 29, 2020.

Can Guerreros pull off another upset?

Monterrey looked like world-beaters as the Liga MX calendar hit April. The Rayados defeated Tijuana 4-0 to extend their unbeaten streak to 12 games (11-1-0) and they were running away with the league.

Then came a 2-1 loss to América which was followed by a shocking 2-1 home loss to Santos Laguna, their quarterfinal rivals.

Fans of the northern giants might have thought things had been righted when they won their last two games but those wins came against last-place Mazatlán FC and against a Pumas team that was coming apart at the seams.

Whatever the case, Monterrey looked out of sorts on Wednesday up in Torreón as the worst defense in Liga MX held the Rayados to a scoreless draw. That outcome allows Santos Laguna to dream of playing the spoiler a second weekend in a row.

Last Saturday, the Guerreros stunned the defending Liga MX champs in a wildcard game, playing Pachuca to a 4-4 tie before winning the penalty shootout.

There will be no shootout at “El Gigante de Acero” since, as the higher seed, Monterrey advances on any aggregate draw. So Santos knows it must win to reach the semifinals.

To avoid being embarrassed, several Rayados will have to rediscover their midseason form, especially Rogelio Funes Mori and Arturo González. The striker and the playmaker played poorly in the first leg and one wonders if coach Víctor Manuel Vucetich might turn to his extraordinarily deep bench and shake things up. If not by changing his starting line-up, by making substitutions earlier than normal.

As for Santos Laguna, interim coach Pablo Repetto must look for his first win at the helm (Eduardo Fentanes was fired after losing the season finale and Repetto has guided “los laguneros” to two draws).

Guerreros fans would love to get some revenge for the upset Monterrey pulled during the Apertura 2019 playoffs. Santos came into the Liguilla as the top seed only to be battered in the first round by the Rayados in a 6-3 aggregate drubbing.

I don’t see that happening. Look for Vucetich to get a better performance out of his talented squad and transform the nervous tension of the home fans into raucous cheering before the game hits the 60-minute mark.

Aguilas soaring into the Final Four

One main reason it is unlikely América will lose by three goals is that the 11th-seeded Tuneros scored three goals just once in the regular season. And that came back in the season opener (a 3-2 win at Necaxa).

Atleti did come up with 3 goals last weekend to knock out sixth-seeded León but the Esmeraldas gifted two of those and América will not be so careless.

No team scored fewer goals this season than San Luis (16) and the Aguilas have been in tremendous form (6-2-0 in their last eight, including Wednesday 3-1 win over the Tuneros). Meanwhile, América boasts the best offense in Liga MX (36 goals in the regular season).

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I expect “Los Millonetas” to cruise into the semifinals – again – and continue their march toward league title No. 14. There only concern might be the health of All-League striker Henry Martín who left the first game in San Luis after taking a blow to the head.