MEXICO CITY -- The first stage of the Liguilla didn't fail to surprise as the regular season's first-place club, Tijuana, and second-place club, Pachuca, were eliminated by Leon and Necaxa, respectively. Knowing that Liga MX tends to be full of surprises, there's still room for more in the semifinals.
Here's what to watch for in the upcoming days:
America heads into the semis empowered after Clasico Nacional win
With Ricardo Antonio La Volpe as head coach, America has recuperated needed order. Las Aguilas are no longer a team with a defense capable of collapsing at any moment during the match. Although the defense has been missing players like Paul Aguilar and Bruno Valdez, who both started 11 games in the regular season, La Volpe has been able to maximize what has been available to him.
Starting Thursday, America will take part in its third consecutive semifinal series, its eighth in 10 postseason appearances. What La Volpe hopes is that the accidents that took place in the last two semifinal duels against Pumas in the 2015 Apertura and Monterrey in the 2016 Clausura don't happen again. In the first leg of the series against Pumas, Pablo Aguilar and Miguel Samudio were red-carded, while in the second leg, Paolo Goltz and Rubens Sambueza were sent off. In the first leg of the series against Rayados, none of America's players saw the red, but in the second leg, Paolo Goltz and Osvaldo Martinez's severely damaged Las Aguilas' winning aspirations.
America went on to lose both series, and the commonality was a clear lack of authority from former head coach Ignacio Ambriz. Players easily lost their minds, leading them to commit silly mistakes. With La Volpe that has changed, and since his arrival, Los Azulcremas have not had a player sent off, and the team has only conceded nine league goals. Before La Volpe's arrival, the team had conceded 18.
"We knew that coming here [to Estadio Chivas] with a 1-1 result would be very difficult, but in the days we had rest, I noticed the team's commitment," noted Samudio to the press after America eliminated its archrival, Chivas, in the Liguilla quarterfinals. "Clasico Nacional always motivates, especially if you know that if you get the result you go on to the semifinals; today all of my teammates gave their all."
The win over Chivas has strengthened the union inside the team, and La Volpe knows that he can count on players who already know the ins and outs of how to win a Liga MX championship and will take full advantage of it.
Will Leon be able to tame Tigres' attack?
There's an intrepid feel to this Tigres-Leon matchup that will take place in the coming days. Usually when Tigres head coach, Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti, is on the sidelines he has a disgruntled face, but it's rare when his face showcases bewilderment. Well, in the league game against Leon on Oct. 1 that Los Esmeraldas won 3-2, Ferretti left Estadio Leon confused and worried about how his team played.
Goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman was at direct fault on two of the allowed goals, but these mistakes were provoked by Leon's insatiable high press, the same one that crushed Tijuana a week ago.
However, one could say that the Tigres side that's en route to Guanajuato is a much different one than the one that visited in early October. The reawakening of Andre-Pierre Gignac, someone who Leon's manager, Javier Torrente, thinks very highly of after the time they shared together at Marseille, should preoccupy Leon's defenders.
But the same could be said about Tigres' defense, which will have to worry about striker Mauro Boselli. Boselli's series against Tijuana demonstrated why his leadership in the team is so fundamental; his grit and hunger to score allowed Leon to score the needed goals in Tijuana to advance to the semifinals.
Torrente's first victim was Miguel "Piojo" Herrera, one of Liga MX's most prepared Mexican coaches, now his next challenge will be to outplay the manager who has been coaching in Liga MX since 1991 -- Tuca.
Necaxa's return to First Division, with Sosa as head coach, has been categorical
Acclaimed Mexican writer and journalist, Juan Villoro, is a diehard Necaxa fan, so when he expresses his sentiments at the recent events surrounding the club of his life, his voice becomes the voice of many.
In a recent interview with ESPN MX, he described that head coach Alfonso Sosa has instilled in the team a work rate that has allowed it to pull off heroics as it did by eliminating the reigning champions, Pachuca.
"Necaxa's return [to the First Division] has been extraordinary," he added. "Simply having the team in First Division is something many fans have been wanting for a long time. One would think that Necaxa's fanbase is not so big, but let's not forget that the kids whom adopted Necaxa as their team in the 1990s are now adults."
In Mexico, Necaxa is now known as Liga MX's Leicester City. For a team that has only lost once in its last 14 league games, the sky is the limit. Villoro, and all of Necaxa's faithful, are living a dream thanks to Sosa's excellent coaching.