MEXICO CITY -- By the time the Liga MX 2019 Apertura final gets underway, eighteen days will have passed since Club America and Monterrey booked their places in the holiday season finale.
The debate in Mexico has been raging over whether Rayados' participation in the Club World Cup has been a hindrance or not. Thankfully, we'll start to get answers on Thursday and with 53,000 expected in Monterrey's Estadio BBVA and 70,000-plus at Club America's Estadio Azteca for a final between two of Mexico's best teams, this promises to be worth the wait.
Here's how the two teams shape up ahead of the 2019 Apertura final:
First leg: Monterrey vs. Club America (Dec. 26, 9:30 p.m. ET)
Second leg: Club America vs. Monterrey (Dec. 29, 9 p.m. ET)
Standard formation: 4-4-2
Most important player: Guido Rodriguez
SPI to lift trophy: 54 percent
Regular season finish: 6th
It's been a strange waiting period for Club America: since thrashing Veracruz 5-0 on Nov. 8, America has only played four games and the lack of rhythm and match practice is a concern, something a 5-1 victory in a friendly against second division side Leones Negros last Friday does little to dispel.
It left coach Miguel Herrera with some juggling to do in terms of finding solutions to three crucial players from the 2018 Apertura title win down the spine of the America side all departing. It's been a credit to him that America has got this far, especially with a plethora of injuries hampering the regular season.
In the playoffs, America has had an unconventional run. The team lost the first legs in the quarterfinals and semifinals, requiring a pair of stunning comebacks to advance. The away 4-2 victory at Tigres' Estadio Universitario in the second leg of the quarterfinal will live long in the memory, while the 2-0 win at home to advance against Morelia was clinical and instilled a sense in the America faithful that -- just like 12 months ago in the 2018 Apertura final -- the title is destined to end up with Las Aguilas.
Herrera had confidence from the start. He boisterously predicted ahead of the playoffs that America would finish the season as champions, becoming the first team to do so after finishing sixth in the regular season. It's the kind of claim that can backfire, but Herrera, whose contract is up next summer, is unafraid and has since stated that it would be a "total failure" is Las Aguilas aren't lifting the trophy on Dec. 29 in the Azteca.
Standard formation: 4-2-3-1
Most important player: Carlos Rodriguez
SPI to lift trophy: 46 percent
Regular season finish: 8th
Even if America may be undercooked, there's a strong argument that Monterrey comes into the Liga MX final at a disadvantage, following the long trip to Qatar and three games at the Club World Cup.
Antonio Mohamed knows it. That's why he sent nine players back early from the Club World Cup to start preparing for the final in order to reduce the effects of the time difference and travel. That second leg at altitude in Mexico City, in front of the America crowd, will be brutal and Rayados will have to dig deep.
The other side of the coin is that Rayados earned respect and a boost of confidence by taking Liverpool to the very edge in the semifinal of the Club World Cup. The team looked united, fired up and on a mission as it took third-place at the tournament. And confidence is undoubtedly high: since Mohamed took over on Oct. 9, Rayados have only lost once, in the dying seconds to UEFA Champions League winner Liverpool.
Monterrey's vertical style, prowess from set pieces and swift, counter-attacking football isn't all too different from that of Club America and an all-action, physical final should be expected in the cold climes of Monterrey and Mexico City.
The expectation is that Mohamed will stick with the same starting team he named against Liverpool, although it'll likely return to a 4-2-3-1, instead of the 5-4-1 the Argentine employed in the Club World Cup semi. That'll mean Maxi Meza, Miguel Layun and Jonathan Gonzalez will all start on the bench
For Rayados, the fact rivals Tigres will go down as the team of the decade in Liga MX (due to their five titles) will hurt, and there's almost a desperation to end a drought that goes back all the way to the 2010 Apertura. Three finals have come since then for Monterrey and each one has been lost. Victory would perhaps be even sweeter for Mohamed, who left Club America under negative circumstances and criticism about his style of play, despite winning the 2014 Apertura.
If Rayados can do it, a desperate start to the Apertura will be capped by the team finishing the year as Mexican and CONCACAF champions, something every other club in Liga MX would love to be able to boast.