Liga MX: León and Necaxa, a study in contrasts

TOLUCA, MEXICO - AUGUST 26: Claudio Gonzalez of Leon jumps to control the ball during the 7th round match between Toluca and Leon as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Nemesio Diez Stadium on August 26, 2018 in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo by Angel Castillo/Jam Media/Getty Images)
TOLUCA, MEXICO - AUGUST 26: Claudio Gonzalez of Leon jumps to control the ball during the 7th round match between Toluca and Leon as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Nemesio Diez Stadium on August 26, 2018 in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo by Angel Castillo/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Necaxa and León find themselves headed in opposite directions after completely different starts to the 2018 Apertura.

León and Necaxa, two mid-level teams with rich histories, spent years wandering the wilderness of second division before re-establishing themselves in Liga MX this decade.

While León returned with a roar (claiming back-to-back league titles within two years), Necaxa only gradually escaped the relegation zone but simply does not have the payroll to challenge for league supremacy.

Seven weeks into the Apertura 2018 seasons, the two provincial teams are moving in opposite directions – León on the rise with legitimate dreams of making noise in the playoffs; Necaxa sinking after pulling off a stunning upset of powerful América in the season opener.

The two teams won’t face each other until Week 13 and by then the postseason picture will have become much more apparent, but it’s worth taking a look at their performances to date.

Viva Liga MX Power Rankings after 7 matches. light. Hot

León – The Pride of the Bajío

As Mauro Boselli goes, so go the Esmeraldas. That would seem to be the case thus far this season.

But when the sturdy Boselli struggles, 5’5” Luis “Chapo” Montes is unafraid to get in his face, metaphorically speaking.

These two veterans (Boselli is 33, Montes 32) are the primary holdovers of the “Bicampeones,” winners of the Liga MX trophy in Apertura 2013 and Clausura 2014. And as long as they are healthy, León remains relevant.

Directing the squad this season is relative newcomer Gustavo Díaz who took over in August 2017. The club made the playoffs his first season in charge, but missed out last season. The 0-1-2 start to Apertura 2018 appeared to place his head on the chopping block, but his patience has allowed the club’s many new acquisitions to become comfortable.

Boselli, a Boca Juniors product, joined “La Fiera” in summer 2013 and fit right in as the first-choice striker, helping León win its back-to-back titles. Four times Boselli has scored 20-plus goals in a full year (combined Apertura/Clausura seasons) and he is the unquestioned skipper of the team.

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Boselli’s slow start in league play mirrored the team’s struggles. He opened the season stuck on 99 career Liga MX goals and was unable to find the net through the first five games though his three goals in Cup play proved he still has what it takes. In Week 6, the Argentine finally hit the century mark, and in a big way. He scored both goals in León’s 2-0 victory over América. He scored again in Week 7 and one has to think that Boselli’s prowess in front of net (he’s a 3-time Liga MX goal-scoring champ) will keep the Esmeraldas in the hunt

In midfield, Montes is the inspiration for the León offense and his competitiveness energizes the team. He can exploit defensive weaknesses with his sublime passing skills and his accuracy allows him to take aim at goal from long-range. He orchestrates the offense, often from a deep-lying position, spreading the field or looking to find Boselli for a header in the box.

This season, Montes has sought to rely on wide midfielders Yairo Moreno and Maxi Cerato, both summer acquisitions. The South America pair often tried to force things too much in the early going, but both have become more comfortable as they get more familiar with Liga MX. Cerato is more likely to work on the flanks, trying to get behind the defense or looking to send crosses into the penalty area. Moreno is a threat to cut into the middle and occasionally works in the box – with or without the ball – trying to find space.

At the back, new signing William Tesillo has worked well with fellow Colombian Andrés Mosquera in the center of the León defense. Both defenders are strong in the air (including on set pieces on offense) and Mosquera is a threat to move forward on occasion.

At fullback, Fernando Navarro (also a contributing member of the Bicampeones) and Juan Francisco Cornejo have provided reliable protection. Navarro is the more likely of the two to venture forward and his ball skills (especially his passing) help relieve pressure.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the roster was goalie Rodolfo Cota. The veteran keeper joined León from the Chivas and his presence has been instrumental in helping the defense jell that much more quickly.

The 11th place Esmeraldas will entertain the wounded Pumas on Saturday with a chance to climb into playoff position as only 4 points separate León from third place Santos. On Tuesday night, León has the chance to clinch a spot in the Copa MX knockout stage by defeating Querétaro on the road.

Necaxa – In need a spark

The Rayos shocked the pundits in Week 1 with a well-earned upset of powerhouse América. In Week 2, despite losing to the Pumas, Necaxa displayed an attractive style of attacking futbol.

But since then, the Rayos have struggled to find their rhythm and their offense has looked ragged and too often left them exposed to odd-man counterattacks.

The orchestra leader for Necaxa is coach Marcelo Michel. At 31, the callow Jalisco native is younger than four of his players. He came to Necaxa by an unorthodox route. He started in player development (working with Johan Cruyff in the Chivas’ front office from 2012-2013) before enjoying brief stints as coach in Ascenso MX, garnering attention on the sideline with Zacatepec in the 2017-2018 season. The Cañeros made the playoffs in each season and pulled off big upset wins over the Tigres, Pachuca, Necaxa and León in the Copa MX.

Michel has installed recognizable elements of Cruyff’s total football with a quick, complex, short-passing game. He has often flooded midfield with a 4-5-1 formation that occasionally morphs into a 3-5-2. When it works right, you can almost hear “Sweet Georgia Brown” playing in the background as Necaxa seems to be emulating the chaotic Harlem Globetrotters weave.

The problem with this strategy is that when it breaks down, they are vulnerable at the back, particularly because there is not a rugged defensive midfielder on the roster. And this all-too-apparent weakness has been complicated by a lack of organization or communication as the Rayos scramble back.

The evolution of Necaxa’s complex offense was also stymied by an injury to midfield general Mati Fernández. The Chilean with La Liga and Serie A experience was expected to provide the “pause” and the change-of-pace that could unlock opposing defenses. In his absence, some players interrupted the offense by taking off on ill-advised solo runs (Facundo Castro and Daniel Álvarez were frequent culprits) and striker Víctor Dávila’s frustration would eventually emerge via poor shot selection. Fernández finally made it back on the field this past weekend.

Still, steadfastness and patience are necessary. Especially since the Aguascalientes-based club was forced to replace key players who left for greener pastures: goalie Marcelo Barovero (Monterrey); defender Igor Lichnovsky and midfielder Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul); and striker Carlos González (UNAM).

The Rayos are playing an exciting brand of futbol. Despite a modest payroll, Necaxa is not playing conservatively and, though they will frustrate fans this season, they could be developing an entertaining style that would be a complimentary trademark.

Necaxa gets the chance to turn its season around next Friday at slumping Tijuana. The fast track at Estadio Caliente could work in the Rayos favor. On Tuesday night, Necaxa hosts the Pumas in a critical Copa MX match that could determined the group stage winner.