One of the drawbacks to post-season play, in any sport, is that the teams that prove to be the best in the regular aren't necessarily the ones that ultimately end up playing for the title. And in a league as balanced and competitive as the Mexican Primera, rarely do the top regular season clubs ever meet in the final.
It's been a while since a number one seed even escaped the quarterfinals alive.
This weekend, though, there were no upsets. The teams that proved to be the best in the regular season advanced to the semi-finals, setting up two extremely attractive ties that will determine who advances to the finals next week.
Club America coasted to the semi-finals after their 3-1 beat down of Pachuca in the away leg. Christian "Hobbit" Bermudez, who has been at the business end of fierce criticism in his first season (americanistas love to play the "jersey is too big for the player" card every time a player has a sub-par season) got a huge brace in Pachuca, and was then promptly jeered off the field at the Azteca as he was substituted. The 3-2 aggregate score could have been a lot more lopsided, were it not for some baffling misses by Chucho Benitez, the Ecuadorian forward who started the season as the most expensive domestic transfer in MFL history. Luckily for the Aguilas, Benitez' misfortune did not have any impact on the outcome of the tie, but they will not have that kind luxury in the semi-finals against Monterrey.
Like Club America, Rayados came to the home leg with the aggregate lead after getting a 2-1 win at a very raucous Caliente Stadium in Tijuana. Xolos needed to win by two in order to advance. So things could not have gone better for them when they got an early goal and Angel Reyna got red-carded. But Xolos commited the most mortal of sins: thou shall not give up a goal to thy short-handed opponent just before halftime. Xolos went up again in the second half, but then committed another mortal sin: thou shall not allow thy 10-man opponent to score on a set piece. Which is exactly what Monterrey did 3 minutes later.
Despite the playoff exit, Xolos' first foray into the top flight can't be considered anything but an unqualified success. The club has not only done an excellent job of promoting themselves on both sides of the border, but they have also put together a more than decent collection of players. They have all the components: a good stadium, a great fanbase, and a front office that is committed to the cause. Here is hoping Xoloscuintles' move to the top flight is a permanent one.
While the league's northern-most team was enjoying the fiesta grande for the first time, the league's southern-most team was hoping to advance past the quarter-finals for the first time in their history. Jaguares had drawn the top team, Santos, whom they had met in the liguilla before, but had never beaten. Ahh, but they had the top seed curse on their side this time, so maybe, just maybe...
And then Santos Scored.
Santos and Jaguares scored a total of 7 goals in a wild 1st leg, the last of which was a heart-braking stoppage winner by the goal scientist - Carlos Darwin Quintero. 4-3 to Santos. Like Tijuana, Jaguares needed to win by two in order to advance, and, like Tijuana, they got an early goal in the second leg to give them hope.
The hope lasted 7 minutes. The goal scientist broke their hearts again, and then Oribe Peralta turned the knife with a sensational pirouette to put an absolute end to Jaguares' chances. It was Peralta's 24th goal in the MFL this year. Santos now has a chance to exorcise some ghosts, starting with the team that defeated them in last year's final.
Tigres slumped badly in the last month of the season. But they had still played well enough that their late season slide only dropped them to the 5 seed in the liguilla. Tuca's Tigres, though, are a resilient bunch, and they bounced back just enough to take the first leg vs Morelia, 1-0. Would it be enough?
What cliché can we draw up here? Game of inches? One bad bounce? Any combination of right, wrong, place & time? Is it better to be lucky than good? In the first half and the game scoreless, Morelia's 20 year old Angel Sepulveda was at the right place at the right time on a deflection with nothing but netting in front of him. Inches wide. You know what was going to happen after a miss like that. In the 2nd half, a deflected shot by Hugo Ayala found it's way into the net. So it goes. Game over. Tigres found the net a few more times, but the game's outcome had been academic.
A bad Sunday for Television Azteca
Like in the US, 2012 is a Presidential election year in Mexico. With the election just a couple of months away, all the candidates gathered for a televised debate, which was aired everywhere... but Television Azteca, who chose instead to air the Morelia (whom they own, along with Jaguares) Tigres quarterfinal tie. TV Azteca could have easily scheduled the Morelia-Tigres match at an earlier time, to avoid any scheduling conflicts, but didn't. As the day came to a close, both Jaguares and Morelia were out, and it turns out that TV Azteca's ratings gamble to air the game didn't pay off either.
One of things that has made the liguilla great over the years was its unpredictability. The last thing anyone would want to do is to go with the chalk. And when chalk is the surprising outcome....