Liga MX: Toluca poised for spirited stretch run after Sambu returns

TOLUCA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 02: Rubens Sambueza #14 of Toluca celebrates with teammates after scoring the second goal of his team during the 8th round match between Toluca and Santos Laguna as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Nemesio Diez Stadium on September 2, 2018 in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
TOLUCA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 02: Rubens Sambueza #14 of Toluca celebrates with teammates after scoring the second goal of his team during the 8th round match between Toluca and Santos Laguna as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Nemesio Diez Stadium on September 2, 2018 in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Toluca entered the Apertura 2018 as a popular pick among Liga MX handicappers. After all, the Red Devils were finalists in the Clausura 2018 Liguilla and in the Copa MX, coming up just short in both.

The “Choriceros” won the regular season title with ease last season, posting an 11-3-3 record and topping the table with 7 points to spare. The club had the largest point differential (+11) and gave up the second-fewest goals (13 goals against in 17 games).

The Diablos Rojos only lost two regular rotation players over the summer and Coach Hernán Cristante was given several key replacements to chase the franchise’s 11th title: talented midfielder William da Silva, former Boca Juniors defender Fernando Tobio, versatile winger Luis “Quick” Mendoza, striker Amaury Escoto and forward Enrique Triverio was brought back after one year in his native Argentina.

The additions promised to bolster the middle of all three lines and da Silva was seen as a perfect partner for skipper Rubens Sambueza since they played together at América for two seasons, winning the Concacaf Champions League in 2015.

With veteran goalie Alfredo Talavera backstopping the club and midfield stalwart Antonio Rios shielding the back four, the Red Devils seemed poised to challenge for more hardware. But when the whistle blew in late July, Toluca seemed to be unprepared.

Staggering out of the starting gate

Three weeks after winning their home opener against Morelia – a dominating 2-0 victory in which Toluca outshot the Monarcas 18-5 and allowed only 1 shot on goal all game – the Diablos Rojos found themselves floundering in the bottom half of the table. In addition, Toluca had lost its first two Cup matches, virtually ending any chance of advancing out of the group stage.

The Diablos outplayed Puebla in the second game of the Liga MX season, but the forward line of Alexis Canelo and Alexis Vega misfired badly. Canelo in particular took ill-advised shots from distance and didn’t display the patience necessary to finish off plays. This is a tendency he repeated in the ensuing Copa loss to second division Juárez, but the entire team played poorly, failing to show the proper respect to their rival and paying a big price.

As coach Cristante sought to meld his new pieces together, the injury bug hit, undercutting the chance at developing chemistry. Sambueza pulled a muscle in the third game of the season against the Chivas, though he finished the game, a disappointing 2-2 tie marred by awful refereeing. Toluca’s captain would end up missing the team’s next six games.

In the Diablos’ next game – a Copa match at Tijuana – Cristante opted to play a line-up littered with academy players and he paid for it with a 2-0 loss, dropping Toluca to 1-1-3 in all competitions and facing a tricky schedule – a visit to the Tigres who had a 29-game unbeaten streak at home, a rematch with Tijuana and a road trip to unbeaten Cruz Azul.

And with last season’s MVP Sambueza on the sideline for an extended period, Toluca’s season seemed to be prematurely doomed. Especially when he was joined by midfielder Pablo Barrientos and Canelo (although the latter’s injury allowed Triverio to get more playing time and that has been a positive development).

Finding the right balance

In Week 4, Toluca stunned the Tigres in part due to atrocious refereeing. The hosts had a 1-0 lead when ref Roberto García Orozco inexplicably red-carded Tigres midfielder Guido Pizarro. The game turned in the second half as Triverio and da Silva scored to steal the win.

More than the result, a key development was the emergence of da Silva in midfield. In Sambueza’s absence the Brazilian asserted himself with strong two-way play and steady passing, while creating scoring opportunities from a variety of spots on the pitch.

The Diablos then crushed Tijuana 3-0 before holding their own against league leaders Cruz Azul before succumbing 1-0. This second game produced a scare, however, as holding midfielder Rios suffered what appeared to be a nasty ankle injury when he was tackled from behind.

Toluca supporters were pleasantly surprised to see Rios back on the pitch the following week, but visiting León surprised the “Choriceros” with a well-deserved 2-1 win. Bigger than the loss was the stunning post-game announcement by coach Cristante in which he hinted that he might quit. Fortunately, the potential season-wrecker turned out to be a misunderstanding. (A team executive had said something to the coach who thought it was an insult, but the matter was cleared up a few days later.)

Up next were the defending champs – Santos – who had climbed to second place behind an explosive offense. And only four minutes into the match at Estadio Nemesio Díez, the visitors were ahead 1-0 thanks to a Julio Furch goal.

With only 10 minutes gone, Cristante turned to Sambueza who was back in uniform and told him to start warming up because the offense was in complete disarray. But then, William da Silva stepped forward with a brilliant individual effort, firing home inside the far post after a nice drop pass from Triverio.

With the Diablos feeling more comfortable, Sambueza sat back down. He would have to wait for the second half to make his return. And when he checked in at the 56-minute mark, his first touch almost led to a goal as he filtered a perfectly weighted pass through the defense that Mendoza almost converted.

Only six minutes after his reappearance, Sambueza knocked home a penalty kick and Toluca’s defense made the 2-1 advantage stand up. The captain’s presence allowed the Diablos to have more sustained possession and stretch the field, slowing down Santos’ dangerous counterattacks.

The victory lifted Toluca into 8th place in the standings, but only 1 point out of 3rd place.

Poised for a second-half run

Having been knocked out of the Copa could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The FIFA break will also help Toluca get its injured players back into the fold.

The next three games are all very winnable and that could set up the Diablos for a productive stretch run to get in a more favorable playoff position.

Next Friday, Toluca travels to relegation-threatened Veracruz before hosting slumping Necaxa on Matchday 10. The following week sees the Diablos visit last place Atlas. A haul of 9 points could see the Red Devils gathering momentum before key showdowns with Pachuca, Monterrey and América (the latter two on the road) in a one-month span.

If Toluca remains healthy, the club will be dangerous in the Liguilla. Da Silva has gained confidence and found a comfort zone in the middle of the pitch between Rios and the front line. His familiarity with Sambueza from their time together at América should allow him to find the spaces where Sambueza will be looking for him. His role might become a bit more diminished but the lesser burden might free da Silva up to take more chances.

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Mendoza also played with Sambu at América for one season (just before da Silva joined the Águilas) and his creativity on the wing can help stretch opposing defenses, giving more space in the middle for Triverio and whichever strike partner coach Cristante selects (I’d like to see Escoto get a chance).

Perhaps the primary concern for coach Cristante will be the defense. Fullbacks Cristian Borja and Rodolfo Salinas have been dangerous going forward (though Borja has not been as proficient as he was last season), but the central pairing of Oswaldo González and Fernando Tobio still seems a bit uncertain. I expect the veteran pair to iron things out over the next 3 to 4 games. With Rios in front of them and Talavera between the pipes, the rest of the defense is in good hands.

If the Diablos remain healthy, I see no reason they can’t crack the top four and get home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs.