Coming into a weekend where more than a dozen teams still had liguilla aspirations, Mexico's Apertura 2011 regular season came to end as it should have, with tons of drama. One team, Pumas, was desperate in their quest to get the goal vs. Xolos that would earn them the golden ticket. while another, Queretaro, were the Xolos' biggest fans outside of TJ. Queretaro's players had the candles lit, the incense burning, the potions brewing, and the rosaries clutched.
It worked. And then the tequila started flowing.
Pumas were out, and Queretaro was in, making their first fiesta grande in history. Congratulations to Gallos Blancos, and their coach, Jose Saturino Cardozo. And for Pumas... well, when you lose 4 games by giving up 4 goals in each, it's hard to see them in the big dance. But there they were, denied by sloppy finishing (isn't everyone?), a post, and some scrappy Aztec Dogs.
So the liguilla is set. By virtue of of their strong finish, Chivas has claimed the top seed, which may not be such a good thing. 14 of the 30 top seeds have fallen victim to the top seed curse. Chivas themselves victimized top-seeded Tigres in the last Liguilla.
#1 CHIVAS VS #8 GALLOS BLANCOS DE QUERETARO Chivas will be facing those plucky White Roosters from Queretaro in the first round. They might as well be looking into the mirror. A good portion of Queretaro's roster is made up of Chivas players who are currently on loan. One rooster who has to be dealt with is Carlos Bueno, the Uruguayan striker who finished the season with 10 goals, good enough for 2nd on the scorer's table. Chivas will also likely be without their starting goal-keeper, Luis Michel, for both ties, as he was red-carded in Chivas' last match for elbowing a Pachuca player. Offensively, Chivas has plenty of firepower to match Bueno. Marco Fabian is one of the best at his position and Erick Torres has regained his scoring touch. It should be noted, though, that Gallos Blancos defeated Chivas, 1-0, this season. In Guadalajara.
WHO WINS? It all spells trouble for the Sacred Flock: the curse, no Michel, a loss to Queretaro in the season.... But I can't pick against them because I pegged them to win it all. And how often can anyone guess right in this league?
#2 CRUZ AZUL VS MONARCAS MORELIA Cruz Azul faces Morelia in a rematch of the ugly, ugly, semi final tie from last season. A melee at the end of the second leg led to multiple game suspensions for multiple players and coaches. Jesus Corona, Mexico's starting keeper, lost his spot on the National Team. The cementeros have been their usual consistent selves, and the Monarchs are no slouches. With the fisticuffs will be held at bay, this should be a very entertaining series. Keep an eye on Cruz Azul's youngster, Javier Aquino, who led the league in assists.
WHO WINS? Cruz Azul should exact revenge as they take the first step to a meeting with Chivas in the final.
#3 TIGRES UANL VS #6 PACHUCA After a strong start, followed by a mini-swoon, Tigres have recovered nicely and should be considered among the favorites to take the crown. Tuca Ferreti's teams are always strong defensively, and this group is no different. They are the stingiest team in the league. The format favors Tuca's bunch, where the higher seed can advance with a draw.
Pachuca's season started off with a win and loss repeated 4 times. No real surprise, considering the Tuzos brought in almost 20 new players. It was going to take time for the team to gel, not to mention front office patience with the coach, Efrain Flores. The team started putting it all together in the second half of the season, as they only lost once in nine games. And one of those off-season signings, Enrique Esqueda, began to pay dividends. It was his 90th minute equalizer against Chivas that put Pachuca in the playoffs.
WHO WINS? Tuca never met a draw he didn't like, but his conservative approach bit him in the keester last season vs. Chivas, and it will again this time against the Gophers.
#4 SANTOS LAGUNA VS #5 JAGUARES DE CHIAPAS The 4/5 battle has the potential to be a classic. Santos and Pachuca are two great attacking teams. Their defenses, however, not so much. After Benjamin Galindo was brought in as coach at mid-season, Santos rattled off 5 straight. Jaguares had a great mid-season spell as they hovered at or near the top of the table for most of the season. This will be the most geographically diverse match-up of the quarters with the first leg in the jungle, and the second one in the desert.
WHO WINS? This is the biggest toss-up of any of the quarterfinals. While both teams possess players with great individual flare, Jaguares collection of Colombians will be the difference.