Five takeaways from Matchday 12 in Liga MX

ZAPOPAN, MEXICO - OCTOBER 06: Players of Pumas celebrate their victory after the 12th round match between Chivas and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Akron Stadium on October 6, 2018 in Zapopan, Mexico. (Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
ZAPOPAN, MEXICO - OCTOBER 06: Players of Pumas celebrate their victory after the 12th round match between Chivas and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Akron Stadium on October 6, 2018 in Zapopan, Mexico. (Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

The final third of the Liga MX season is upon us and the three Mexico City clubs are showing they will be contending for the trophy, but the defending champs have made clear that they will fight to retain the crown.

The quality of refereeing in the league continues to be a popular point to argue after a few more controversies over the weekend, but the VAR (video assistant referee) will be available on a trial basis beginning with the next round of games after the FIFA break.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here are my five takeaways from Matchday 12.

1. The three Mexico City clubs seem capable of ending the capital’s championship dry spell

League-leading Cruz Azul, No. 2 América and No. 4 Pumas all won critical match-ups this weekend (the latter two on the road). Squeezed in the middle of these clubs is defending champion Santos at No. 3.

When Santos hoisted the Clausura 2018 trophy in May, it marked the 9th time in 10 seasons that a team from the “provinces” had won the league title. América’s Apertura 2014 championship is the only blip in that streak.

Before the season, Monterrey and the Tigres were touted as title favorites, but both have been bitten by the injury bug and neither has ever appeared to tap the potential. They currently sit at No. 6 and No. 7, respectively, and could still challenge for a Top 4 finish and home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Toluca is at No. 5 but has been wildly inconsistent and can’t be considered a serious contender unless they clean up their act (the Diablos lead the league in yellow cards and red cards).

Cruz Azul and América seem to be the biggest road blocks to a Santos repeat; the Pumas would have to be categorized as more of a surprise contender. Cruz Azul boasts the league’s stingiest defense (9 goals allowed in 12 games) and América leads Liga MX in goals scored (24 in 12 games).

Cruz Azul is a perfect 6-0-0 at home, so if the Cementeros finish in first, they’d have to be a solid betting favorite. América and Santos are also unbeaten at home, but each has 2 ties (Cruz Azul tied Santos in Torreón in Week 7).

The season’s final 4 weeks offers one potential finals match-up each week: Matchday 14 – América at Cruz Azul; Matchday 15 – Cruz Azul at UNAM; Matchday 16 – América at Santos; Matchday 17 – Santos at UNAM.

2. The refereeing is not as bad as it is made out to be

Although the introduction of the video assistant referee (even on a limited trial basis) is eagerly awaited for the next round of games, the refs were steady and reliable this weekend.

The ref for the Monterrey at Cruz Azul match (Fernando Hernández) received the most criticism, I would argue his calls did not adversely affect the outcome of the match. His penalty call on Jesús Molina was a legitimate call. Molina wrapped up Cruz Azul’s Igor Lichnovsky as the Cementero defender moved toward an incoming corner kick. One TV wit deemed it a terrible call, saying “that kind of a play happens on every corner kick.” I respond, yes, and that’s why players think they can get away with it. It was a foul in the penalty box and if more such calls were made, we’d see less wrestling on corner kicks.

Hernández’s minute 24 red card on Rayados forward Rogelio Funes Mori (his elbow made contact with Iván Marcone’s face as he contested a header) was indeed harsh but the Argentine leaped into his opponent, not straight up. Arguably, the foul merited only yellow, but the elbow was raised knowing Marcone was rising for the ball too. Late in the second half, Herández and his assistant missed a foul in the box that should have earned Cruz Azul another penalty kick.

In the Toluca-Pachuca match, ref Diego Montaño worked well with his side judges to correctly show Toluca’s William da Silva red after a nasty cleats-up clash with Pachuca’s Jorge Hernández. Initially, it looked like the ref was going to eject Hernández – the victim – but communicated with his team and sent da Silva to the showers.

The match got a bit heated, but Montaño maintained control though Santiago García came close to earning a red with another rough tackle of the unlucky Hernández. Instead, Montaños shoed the Toluca defender a yellow.

The issue of quality refereeing is certainly a concern, but tends to be overdone by TV commentators looking to raise controversy, or “homer” announcers who only see fouls against their favorite teams. It is also made more difficult by the plentiful diving that takes place on occasion (Toluca, by far, is the king of the diving club) and is also hampered by the constant whining that goes on during and after the games (here, I’d say that América and coach Miguel Herrera are the Los Angeles Clippers of Liga MX – they whine about every call).

3. Jesús Corona is the top Mexican goalie in Liga MX

Chuy stood on his head (to steal a hockey euphemism) against Monterrey and was almost single-handedly responsible for Cruz Azul’s 3 points Saturday night.

Corona has been on his game throughout the season for the Cementeros, pitching shut-outs in exactly half of Cruz Azul’s 12 games. The club strengthened the middle of the defense in the offseason, acquiring defender Pablo Aguilar and defensive mid Iván Marcone, but Corona has been spectacular when called on, especially on breakaways.

With the score tied at 1-1 early in minute 60, the Rayados exploded on a counter. Dorlan Pabón split the last two Cruz Azul defenders and was in alone on Corona who made a brilliant reflex save from point-blank range. He leaped to his feet and scrambled back toward the center of the goal and palmed away the follow shot by Nico Sánchez. Ten minutes later, the Cementeros scored the game-winner.

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Corona has also been exceedingly efficient at punching out long centering passes and has been equally as good at swallowing up or swatting away crosses.

The 37-year-old keeper has been a mainstay on Mexico’s national team but has rarely won the No. 1 jersey, usually surpassed by Memo Ochoa. Despite the lack of opportunity on the international stage, Corona remains one of the top goalies in Liga MX.

4. Never, and I mean never, concede corner kicks to América

The Aguilas pulled off a mild surprise with their 3-2 road win at Tigres, but more surprising was their deadly effectiveness off set pieces. All three goals came from set pieces, two of which were executed with wonderful precision.

The first goal – off a corner kick in minute 9 – was the result of persistence as the Aguilas maintained possession in and around the box, got inside the scrambling Tigres defense, collected three loose balls as the Tigres got lost chasing the ball. Finally, defender Emanuel Aguilera chased a ball that had squibbed across the goal mouth near the touch-line and fired a low blast back across goal but behind the defense who had stopped chasing. Waiting at the far post was defender Bruno Valdez and he knocked in the opening goal.

The second goal was a header by Aguilera in minute 47 right off the corner kick. Aguilera simply beat his man to the ball and banged it home for a 2-1 lead.

Two minutes later, América made it 3-1 when Bruno Valdez got his head on a corner kick out above the penalty spot, sending it toward the far post. Waiting there unmarked was Guido Rodríguez who smashed it home before the Tigres defense could react. In fact, it seemed like the Tigres were trying to play for offside but they forgot that fullback Chaka Rodríguez was guarding the post and unable to pull out since the Tigres did not win the initial header.

This has been a pattern for América as they have scored a league high 9 goals off set pieces this season. Valdez has been a prominent fixture in these plays, including a game winner against Puebla off a free kick in minute 90+3 when the Aguilas were playing a man down.

5. Julio Furch’s name should be written on the MVP trophy now

The tall Argentine striker for Santos has been phenomenal this season, stepping up after the defending champs lost the league’s leading scorer over the summer. Djaniny Tavarez left for a bigger payday in Saudi Arabia and Furch stepped up to carry the load, hoisting Santos into the No. 3 spot through 12 weeks.

The 29-year-old came to Mexico in January 2015 and became Veracruz’s top striker, scoring 28 goals during his two years with the Tiburones. He joined Santos in January 2017 and scored 23 goals in his first 57 games with the Guerreros despite playing second fiddle to Djaniny for most of those first three seasons.

This season, Furch has been playing as the lone striker with speedy Jonathan Rodríguez and Brian Lozano playing off him to produce a whirling, quick-strike attack for the defending champs. Furch leads the league with 9 goals in 11 games (he missed one game due to injury) and is third in the league with 4 assists.

Santos has been deadly on the counterattack this season, and they typically start with an outlet pass for Furch. The big striker either traps it and lays it off to Lozano or Rodríguez then follows up the play (that is how he scored the opener against Atlas on Friday night), or he heads it forward hoping to spring one of his speedy line-mates into scoring position.

Even with 5 games remaining, I find it hard to imagine another player stepping up and stealing Furch’s well-deserved crown as Apertura 2018 MVP.