Pumas and Tigres have their claws out for semifinal showdown

The defending champs pay a visit to UNAM in the first leg of the series

Javier Aquino (left) and the Tigres defense will pay special attention to UNAM's César Huerta (with ball) during their Liga MX semifinal series.
Javier Aquino (left) and the Tigres defense will pay special attention to UNAM's César Huerta (with ball) during their Liga MX semifinal series. / Agustin Cuevas/GettyImages
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Here’s hoping the Pumas-Tigres semifinal series will be more competitive than the América-Atlético de San Luis match-up (the Aguilas won the first leg 5-0).

In contrast to the No. 1 vs No. 8 seed pairing, the No. 3 Tigres and 4th-seeded Pumas would appear to offer a more balanced test.

Of course, if you look at the recent history between “los dos felinos” you might think Tigres can start packing for the Liga MX Final. After all, Tigres has lost only one of their past 10 contests against the Pumas, posting a 5-4-1 record.

Oh, but wait. That one win came this season back on Matchday 6 with UNAM winning 2-1 at home. And Tigres didn’t get their lone goal until deep into stoppage time.

No Gignac? No worries. At least that’s what Tigres are telling themselves

French superstar André-Pierre Gignac will not be at the CU tonight, just as he was not available for the first-leg match at Puebla in the quarterfinals (a 2-2 draw).

That means former Liga MX scoring champ Nico Ibáñez will take the field as the starting striker for Robert Siboldi’s team.

Evidently, Gignac aggravated his sports hernia (while scoring two goals in the second leg, helping the Northern Giants to a 3-0 victory) and will do light rehab in hopes of being ready to take the field at “El Volcán” for the return match on Sunday

And in case you were wondering, Gignac did not play in the above-mentioned Matchday 6 contest.

Another UNAM nightmare for Siboldi?

The Tigres coach probably does not relish the idea of playing at UNAM. 

In addition to the 2-1 loss at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in August, yesterday marked the 3-year anniversary of one of the greatest Pumas comebacks in history. And it came at Siboldi’s expense.

During the Apertura 2020, the Uruguayan manager was in charge at Cruz Azul, guiding the Cementeros to a No. 4 seed. After ousting Tigres in the quarterfinals, “La Máquina Azul” came up against the 2nd-seeded Pumas.

Cruz Azul dominated the first-leg match in Estadio Azteca, coming away with a 4-0 advantage, and was already preparing tactics to face León in the Final. But Siboldi and the Cementeros forgot to take care of business at the CU.

On Dec. 6, 2020, the Pumas scored right out of the gate then added two more before halftime. The second half was heart-stopping tension for “La Máquina,” doing everything possible to hold on for the win.

Knowing that an aggregate draw would send UNAM to the Final as the higher-seeded team, Cruz Azul settled down a bit by parking the bus in the second half. But with 1 minute of time remaining, Juan Pablo Vigón gathered in a pass behind the defense and slotted home, sending Pumas Nation into delirium. (You can see Siboldi’s reaction beginning at the 1:11 mark).

A few weeks later, Siboldi resigned after what he deemed unmerited front office criticism. The Pumas lost the Final to León (UNAM’s most recent visit to the Liga MX finals), Cruz Azul recovered and won the championship the following season. 

One last thing. Vigón now plays for Siboldi with Tigres. And they won a Liga MX title together last season.

How they got here

The champs are a veteran-laden squad that has overcome injuries to reach the playoffs in relatively good shape (Gignac being the exception). 

There was relatively little turnover over the summer – three players in, two players out – and a large segment of the roster has played together for some time now.

Despite the walking wounded (winger Ozziel Herrera – one of the newcomers – and defenders Samir Caetano and Diego Reyes missed significant time), Tigres seemed poised to defend their title with their typical grit, efficiency and hubris.

Even so, Tigres never seemed to click during the Apertura 2023 – all too typical of “Los Auriazules” even as they won five Liga MX titles during the previous decade and marched to the title last season as the No. 7 seed – but still managed to score 32 goals (second-best in Liga MX) while conceding only 18 (third-best).

This team never panics, their methodical, possession-oriented approach frustrating the opposition. Their tactical discipline provides the baseline from which their playmakers – Sebastián Córdova, Luis Quiñones and Diego Lainez – can probe for weaknesses. 

And Siboldi has successfully mixed and matched his line-up thanks to a deep bench.

After missing out on the playoffs last season, the Pumas reloaded, bringing in forward Gabriel “El Toro” Fernández and wingers Roberto Ergas and Rodrigo López. Coach Antonio Mohamed took the job midseason – just like Siboldi did at Tigres – and nearly led the Pumas from the cellar to a postseason spot, missing out by just a single point.

After missing out on the playoffs last season, the Pumas reloaded, bringing in forward Gabriel “El Toro” Fernández and wingers Roberto Ergas and Rodrigo López. Coach Antonio Mohamed took the job midseason – just like Siboldi did at Tigres – and nearly led the Pumas from the cellar to a postseason spot, missing out by just a single point.

Mohamed demanded better defenders and the front office complied, acquiring Brazilian Nathan Silva and Argentinian Lisandro Magallán. This duo has been very sturdy in front of Julio González who enjoyed a break-out season.

One reason González has climbed into the upper echelon of Liga MX net minders (he earned his first call-up to El Tri this summer) is that coach Mohamed demanded that he patrol the box aggressively. UNAM’s goalie was told to chase centering passes and crosses and be alert to long balls over the back line. 

González carried out Mohamed’s instructions with aplomb and his performance between the pipes improved as well. Not only was González reliable (he has played every single minute of the season), but he has become a vocal leader. His performance in the first-leg quarterfinal match against the Chivas was spectacular, his seven saves keeping the Pumas in the series.

Up front, winger César Huerta is the break-out star, his career-high 8 goals were 6th in Liga MX (and just one behind Gignac).

A trio of South Americans help in attack. Winger Eduardo Salvio is a flashy playmaker, midfielder Gustavo Del Crete provides moxie and back-up striker Juan Ignacio Dinenno is dangerous in front of goal.

What to expect from Pumas-Tigres I

This game is likely to be won in midfield where Rafa Carioca often pulls the string for Tigres while also clamping down on opponents’ moves forward. 

Energizer bunny Fernando Gorriarán can also wreak havoc in the center of the pitch while wingers Lainez and Quiñones are willing to track back and help recover possession.

The Pumas will look to be the aggressor knowing that having to go to “El Volcán” in search of a victory can be a daunting task. And as the lower seed, UNAM must outscore Tigres to advance to the Final.

Siboldi has more in reserve – even with the absence of Gignac – so look for him to make adjustments early in the second half as necessary. 

Next. Apertura 2023 Odds and Ends. Of Iron Men and Iron Horses: Liga MX news and notes. dark

Mohamed will likely be inclined to use subs to look for goals. More often than not, that means Dinenno, but Rodrigo López and Roberto Ergas have produced when called upon.