The 2019 Apertura Liga MX quarterfinals get underway on Wednesday, headlined by a mouthwatering clash between reigning champion Tigres and Club America on Thursday evening. Here's a breakdown of each team and quarterfinal series:
Santos Laguna (1) vs. Monterrey (8)
If there is a team not to miss this liguilla, it is Santos Laguna. Throughout the 18 regular-season games, there were a total of 65 goals in games involving the Torreon club. Santos topped the table in terms of goals scored (40), but the 25 leaked at the other end is only worse than Morelia (26) of the teams that have made the postseason.
Guillermo Almada's arrival as head coach at the start of the season has impacted the team's style in a major way. Los Guerreros are the most vertical team in the league: The average possession sequence time was six seconds in the regular season, almost half that of possession-hungry Tigres (11.2 seconds). Santos press high, break quickly and move the ball forward at every opportunity; 41.8 percent of Santos Laguna's passes are forward (the highest in the league).
Central midfielder Fernando Gorriaran is arguably the signing of the season, recovering more balls per game (9.35) than any other player in the league this Apertura. Winger Brian Lozano can also make a claim to be the player of the Apertura, while Julio Furch is remarkably consistent in the goal-scoring department.
Jonathan Orozco's injury situation will be vital. The goalkeeper is excellent with his feet and at playing the sweeper-keeper that Almada desires, but the 33-year-old underwent adductor surgery earlier this month and his presence in the liguilla hasn't, as yet, been confirmed.
Santos' Achilles heel is that teams that beat their high press can expose the defense and find success -- hence the amount of goals conceded. Antonio Mohamed's Monterrey will have no issue with playing longer balls instead of risking playing out from the back.
Standard formation: 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. Almada has gradually shifted from playing two strikers (Furch and Adrian Lozano) to opting for a No. 10 in Diego Valdes.
Most important player: Gorriaran. The Uruguayan is going to have to pin the side together and is key in winning the ball back.
Soccer Power Index to win Apertura: 17 percent
SPI to advance vs. Monterrey: 53 percent
Santos Laguna wouldn't have wanted to face CONCACAF Champions League holder Monterrey at this stage of the playoffs. Los Rayados are an awkward side, full of talented individuals that have underachieved in the regular season.
Mohamed took over from Diego Alonso in early October and Monterrey hasn't lost since, but that disguises the fact that a home 1-1 draw versus Veracruz and other performances haven't exactly been convincing.
But this is now a huge few weeks for Monterrey, who will be featuring at the Club World Cup in Qatar starting Dec. 11. A meeting with Liverpool could await in the semifinals of that tournament, as well as domestic glory.
Analyzing Monterrey's style is slightly more difficult because of the change of manager, but Rayados sent in more crosses than any team in the playoffs (392) during the regular season and 41 percent (11) of the team's goals came from set pieces, with the likes of Nico Sanchez, Cesar Montes and Funes Mori dangerous in the air.
Against a Santos team that likes to attack, Mohamed is likely to be cautious, even in the first leg at home. And with individual match-winners like Rodolfo Pizarro, Dorlan Pabon and Jesus Gallardo, it's probably a wise strategy.
The loss of Funes Mori to injury is a major blow, but former Tottenham Hotspur striker Vincent Janssen is primed for a start in the biggest game since he arrived in Mexico.
Standard formation: 4-2-3-1. Mohamed has played around with how to harness the attacking talent he has at his disposal, even trying a five-player defense for a period against Club Tijuana, and so changes could be expected.
Most important player: Pizarro. The Mexico international has previously propelled Pachuca and Chivas to titles and has the ability to do the same at Rayados.
SPI to win the Apertura: 13 percent
SPI to advance vs. Santos Laguna: 47 percent
Leon (2) vs. Morelia (7)
If there was to be a team of 2019 so far in Liga MX, it would have to be Leon -- even if La Fiera did run out of steam in the 2019 Clausura final and lost to Tigres. Leon has won five more games in Liga MX this year than any other team (25 to Tigres' 20) and backed up its impressive Clausura with a second-place finish in the Apertura regular-season standings.
This time around, the possession-based team -- only Tigres had higher average possession per game -- is better placed than in the Clausura to make a run for the title, with Leo Ramos and Ismael Sosa increasing Nacho Ambriz's attacking options, both for the starting XI and off the bench. Even club legend Luis Montes has had to settle for a spot as a sub in recent weeks.
Like Santos, Leon is a team that attacks as its core philosophy, and while La Fiera scored 38 times in the regular season, it also leaked 23 goals.
Against Morelia, Leon is the favorite, but Monarcas have been a changed team since Pablo Guede took over on Aug. 20, replacing Javier Torrente. Since that date, Morelia has lost only three of 12 Liga MX games.
Standard formation: 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. Ambriz has been tending to play Sosa alongside Jose Juan Macias, although the Argentine often drops deeper.
Most important player: Macias. A charge for the title is helped greatly by an in-form striker, and while Macias is only 20, he's perfectly capable of impacting the postseason in Leon's favor.
SPI to win Apertura: 13 percent
SPI to advance vs. Morelia: 63 percent
Of all the teams in the playoffs, Morelia is the surprise package. But here's the thing: since Guede took over in August, no Liga MX side has won more games than the team from Michoacan (seven) and only Leon and Santos Laguna scored more goals.
While the likes of Pumas, Pachuca, Cruz Azul and Chivas all tripped up and failed to make the liguilla, Morelia has emerged as the dark horse with very little to lose. It certainly goes into the series against Leon as the underdog.
There is no star name in Morelia's squad and statistically it looks like a midtable side, but the players appear united. Under Guede, Monarcas are a dangerous proposition.
Standard formation: 4-1-3-2. Guede has options here, but the most probable formation is a diamond midfield with two strikers up top.
Most important player: Sebastian Sosa. The Uruguayan is a goalkeeper who divides opinions, but on his day his stop-stopping ability can help Morelia overcome teams that, on paper, are stronger.
SPI to win Apertura: 4 percent
SPI to advance vs. Leon: 37 percent
Tigres (3) vs. Club America (6)
The general consensus is that Tigres haven't been at their best this Apertura. Certainly, Santos Laguna and Leon have been a wrung above them on the Liga MX ladder. But even if Tigres drew too often (eight times), the Nuevo Leon club only suffered two losses all season and have been defeated just five times in 41 league games in 2019.
Tigres once again topped the possession-per-game stats (61 percent) and had more touches of the ball (12,068) than any other team, although only 29 percent of passes went forward, hinting at just how important looking after the ball is to coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti.
The quarterfinal against Club America promises to be special, with Tigres in the hunt for their sixth title of the decade and Las Aguilas their fourth. A major blow for Tigres came with the news Monday that goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman is out of the series against America.
Standard formation: 4-4-1-1. This could easily change. Tigres' squad is mature, well drilled and Ferretti played three center-backs on Sunday against FC Juarez. The Brazilian also has the option of employing a 4-4-2.
Most important player: Andre-Pierre Gignac. The Frenchman isn't known as "Mr. Liguilla" for nothing.
SPI to win Apertura: 17 percent
SPI to advance vs. Club America: 51 percent
It's been a difficult season for Miguel Herrera and Club America. It started badly with the late sales of Agustin Marchesin, Mateus Uribe and Edson Alvarez to Europe and then gradually got worse with injuries to Nico Castillo, Giovani dos Santos, Emanuel Aguilera and Nicolas Benedetti. There have been rumors that the club hasn't been happy with Herrera's explosive touchline behavior -- he's been sent off three times this season -- but "Piojo" has done reasonably well in guiding his team to just three losses in 18 regular season games.
Las Aguilas have had a 19-day break since their last Liga MX game. Opinion is divided as to whether that means America will be fresh heading into the postseason or a little rusty. Certainly, the injuries have healed up, Castillo and Henry Martin are finding some form up front and America remains an elite Liga MX team despite its struggles this season.
Standard formation: 4-4-2. The option of playing Dos Santos or Roger Martinez behind Castillo or Martin is always there for Herrera, but given the form of the strikers, it'd be a shock if he didn't use both of them.
Most important player: Guillermo Ochoa. The 34-year-old goalkeeper returned from Europe to rejoin America for occasions like this liguilla and he's a big-game player.
SPI to win Apertura: 19 percent
SPI to advance vs. Tigres: 49 percent
Queretaro (4) vs. Necaxa (5)
Victor Manuel Vucetich's side hasn't garnered a lot of attention, but actually created more chances during the regular season than any other team in the liguilla. "Rey Midas" has once again created a balanced team that has surprised.
The loss of Colombian center-back Alexis Perez to long-term injury in October was a bitter blow for Vucetich, and he's still finding a way to compensate. The options are to employ Luis Romo alongside Jair Pereira, or bring in Spanish center-back Cadete and leave Romo in the holding role he has excelled in.
Standard formation: 4-3-1-2. Queretaro under Vuctich has been pretty consistent of late with three central midfielders shielding the defense and giving No. 10 Marcel Ruiz freedom to roam.
Most important player: Ake Loba. The 21-year-old from Ivory Coast comes into the liguilla off the back of two goals against Morelia last weekend and has the tools to do damage.
SPI to win Apertura: 9 percent
SPI to advance vs. Necaxa: 55 percent
The Aguascalientes team has done a fine job in selling on some of its best talent for a high profit margin, reinvesting the money and continuing to stay competitive.
A fifth-place finish in the regular season represents a job well done for Guillermo Vazquez and his players, but after the Clausura liguilla left a bad taste -- with Brian Fernandez leaving for Portland Timbers just before it began -- Necaxa will want a more positive showing this time. Hugo Gonzalez has been outstanding in goal, Cristian Calderon looks like being Mexico's future left-back and Mauro Quiroga has come into Liga MX to replace Fernandez and won the scoring title in his debut season.
Vazquez's team is pragmatic and patient, with only 46.3 percent average possession this season, which is the least among playoff teams. The aerial-duels-won percentage (55.9 percent) shows a team that can mix it physically and won't be overawed by Queretaro.
Standard formation: 4-4-2. Vazquez has the option of a 4-1-4-1 up his sleeve, but the Quiroga/Maxi Salas partnership is likely to be kept up front.
Most important player: Quiroga. The physical center-forward not only scores goals, but also brings others into the game with his back to goal and is a vital cog in how Necaxa plays.
SPI to win the Apertura: 7 percent
SPI to advance vs. Queretaro: 45 percent