Top 5 mid-table games in the Liga MX stretch run

LEON, MEXICO - OCTOBER 06: Aldo Rocha (L) of Morelia and Walter Gonzalez (R) of Leon fight for the ball during the 12th round match between Leon and Morelia as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Leon Stadium on October 6, 2018 in Leon, Mexico. (Photo by Eduardo Reyna/Jam Media/Getty Images)
LEON, MEXICO - OCTOBER 06: Aldo Rocha (L) of Morelia and Walter Gonzalez (R) of Leon fight for the ball during the 12th round match between Leon and Morelia as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Leon Stadium on October 6, 2018 in Leon, Mexico. (Photo by Eduardo Reyna/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

The final 5 weeks of the Liga MX season will feature a battle royale among mid-table teams fighting to get into the playoffs. Let’s take a quick look at some key games on tap.

The top of the table has been rather stable throughout the first 12 weeks of the season – Cruz Azul, América, Santos and Pumas have each lost exactly 2 games. The northern powerhouses – Monterrey and Tigres – have not played to potential (in part, due to injury issues) but seem poised to claim a playoff spot nonetheless.

Finally, despite Toluca’s undisciplined play, the Diablos — currently in 5th place – seem certain to find a playoff berth.

Just behind these top 7 teams are a cluster of 6 clubs separated by just one point. Querétaro, Morelia and Tijuana have 16 points; Pachuca, Chivas and Puebla have 15 points. Though not impossible, I find it unlikely that another team outside this group of 6 can make a run into the playoffs (although if anyone can, León would be my pick, especially since they have a favorable schedule).

Among these 6 teams, Pachuca and the Chivas have the most favorable schedules. Pachuca plays Santos in Week 13 then closes out with matches against 4 of the 5 worst teams. The Chivas play 4 of the 5 worst teams before ending the season at home against Tigres.

From Matchday 13 through Matchday 17, there is exactly one game that pits two teams from this clustered grouping of 6 teams. Let’s take an early look.

Matchday 13

No. 13 Puebla (15 points) at No. 9 Morelia (16 points)

Puebla has been floating in mid-table all season, staying in shouting distance of a playoff spot on the back of big upsets (a 2-1 home win over Toluca and a 2-1 home win over Monterrey) and a stunning 2-2 tie at UNAM after falling behind 2-0 in the first 15 minutes.

Morelia was a surprise contender in 4th place until hitting the skids and going winless for 6 straight games. The Monarcas stopped their free-fall last week with a 2-1 win at León.

Puebla has a win (at No. 8 Querétaro) and a tie in its last 2 road games and the Camoteros stick to a disciplined and conservative approach away from home. Coach Enrique “Ojitos” Meza tends to favor veterans but he should consider giving 24-year-old Jonathan Espericueta a longer look in place of 31-year-old José Francisco Torres.

The Camoteros feature an active trio up front in Lucas Cavalllini, Cristián Palacios and Christian Tabo but they would benefit from a more dynamic midfield presence.

Morelia’s decline came as a surprise since their tactical discipline was so impressive through the first seven weeks. Their high pressing defense produced some quick-strike counterattacks though they lack a lead striker.

I’d expect Puebla to battle for a tie but Morelia must get the win because their minus-3 goal differential will bite them if tie breaks are needed in the end.

Matchday 14

No. 9 Morelia (16 points) at No. 12 Guadalajara (15 points)

The Chivas have seen their midfield decimated by injuries, so this FIFA break could not come at a better time. Michael Pérez came off the bench last week against UNAM, his first appearance since a hamstring strain on Aug. 31. He will resume his bulldog role in front of the back line.

Midfield creators Orbelín Pineda and Javier López have missed time the past 4 weeks with an assortment of leg injuries. Pineda is an especially big loss because he complements the wing play of Walter Sandoval and López. Without Pineda, the Chivas have not had an offensive presence in the middle of the field behind the strikers.

Coach José Cardozo will be hoping that none of his four players named to Mexico’s roster for the upcoming friendlies come back to camp with injuries. Goalie Raúl Gudiño will be joined on El Tri by fullback José Carlos Van Rankin, winger Isaac Brizuela and striker Ángel Saldívar. All four have been important contributors throughout the season

If Morelia takes all 3 points against Puebla, they might be inclined to settle for a tie here, but they have no “gimmes” on their schedule so they will have to stalk the win. The Monarcas are also the league’s 6th-best road team, so they won’t be intimidated by the environment, particularly since the Chivas have won only 1 of 6 home games.

Though not an excellent length-of-the-field counterattacking team (their best counters come from steals in the middle third and up), they should find opportunities to catch the Chivas with too many men forward.

This game should be played mostly in Guadalajara’s offensive half and if Morelia can maximize any odd-man chances on the counter, this has the potential to be a high-energy match.

Matchday 15

No. 12 Guadalajara (15 points) at No. 13 Puebla (15 points)

The Chivas have been more effective on the road (3-2-1) than at home (1-1-4) and this will be a game they expect to win, especially facing the league’s 2nd-worst defense. Guadalajara will attack from the wings with strikers Ángel Saldívar and Alan Pulido prowling in the box.

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This game could come down to the goalies – Puebla’s Nicolás Vikonis and Guadalajara’s Raúl Gudiño – and which one is sharpest. Vikonis has been tested often this season and has been magnificent at time. The team’s goals-against stat does not reflect the quality of his play, instead it indicates that the Puebla defense has been porous, at times.

Gudiño starred against América in the SuperClásico, earning his first-ever call-up to the senior national team. He’ll be eager to earn a permanent invitation.

The Chivas will pressure with the ball, probing for openings and waiting to seize on errors, which the Puebla defense is prone to commit.

If Puebla does not win this game, their playoff dreams will surely be over.

Matchday 16

No. 9 Morelia (16 points) at No. 10 Tijuana (16 points)

This will be a real test for Morelia – trying to establish, their patient, disciplined approach on the fast track at Estadio Caliente. The Monarcas will sit back and chase forward, trying either to frustrate Tijuana into making mistakes or cutting down openings that their speedy forwards want to race into.

If Tijuana has not found a way to score more regularly (only 10 goals in 12 games), this will surely be a last-gasp game for the Xolos, especially since they play América and UNAM before this clash against Morelia.

Tijuana is one of only 4 teams yet to lose at home, but they have 4 ties. Those are 8 critical home points they have dropped.

Morelia goalie Sebastián Sosa will be tested by the fast turf and Tijuana’s quick-passing attack which is designed to get the Xolos into scoring position quickly. If Morelia captain Gabriel Achilier keeps his defensive linemates well-ordered, I like Morelia’s chances to keep their playoff hopes alive heading into the final week.

Matchday 17

No. 10 Tijuana (16 points) at No. 13 Puebla (15 points)

By the time this game rolls around, there is a good chance that both teams will have been eliminated from the playoff hunt (and that both coaches will have been fired, or on their way out). But the way this season has gone, it is more likely that several teams will still be battling for a shot to win a berth in the Liguilla … and these two teams could be mathematically alive.

The Xolos are the league’s 3rd-worst offense through 12 weeks and I see no way they have a playoff shot if they don’t start finding goals. Puebla is the league’s 2nd-worst defense through 12 weeks and if they don’t shore that up in the coming weeks … well, I need not elaborate.

If both teams are alive, this could be a thrilling match featuring contrasting styles: the go-go Xolos vs the compressed Camoteros. The game – and the season – could come down to a Miguel Lajud save to protect a Xolos lead.