Two teams that squeaked into the back end of the Liga MX playoffs face could be facing make-or-break seasons.
The Tigres have been a powerhouse team this decade, winning three consecutive Apertura championships while reaching four Finals in a five-season stretch. Toluca has been to the Liga MX playoffs for four consecutive seasons, including reaching the Final in the Clausura 2018.
But both teams could find themselves on the outside looking in when the Clausura 2019 playoffs roll around.
Heading into the Apertura 2018 season, the Tigres were a popular pick to win the crown. Instead, the Monterrey-based club stumbled out of the gate (losing three straight from Matchday 3 through Matchday 5) and seemed to play down the opposition throughout the season.
Some wondered if Tuca Ferretti’s duel role as interim manager of El Tri while coaching the Tigres impacted the club. Injuries also played a major role in the team’s eventual 8-5-4 record. But more notable was the veteran team’s lack of discipline and all-too-frequent mental mistakes that cost points, contributing to a disappointing 5-2-2 home record.
Still, they won their final three matches of the season to claim the No. 6 seed and, despite their less-than-impressive performance, the Tigres were favored to defeat the No. 3 seeded Pumas. The Tigres were fortunate to win 2-1 at home in the first-leg quarterfinal match, outplayed by the Pumas. In the return match, UNAM scored three times in the second half to eliminate the Tigres.
With the new season only 5 days away, the Tigres have mostly decided to stand pat. The club traded little-used forward Ismael Sosa to Pachuca, loaned out young 21-year-old striker Rafa Durán to Lobos BUAP, sent fullback Alberto Acosta to Morelia and are dangling striker Enner Valencia in the transfer market. The big deal was the retirement of long-time captain Juninho as the defender bid goodbye after his ninth season (and 282 games) with the Tigres.
Coach Ferretti still has league-leading scorer André-Pierre Gignac and a host of talented forwards at his disposal. But none stood out alongside Gignac: Edu Vargas, Lucas Zelarayán and Jurgen Damm (the perennial future star, now 26) were inconsistent, while Javier Aquino missed long stretches due to injury.
Midfield appears well-manned for now as Rafa Carioca and Guido Pizarro worked well together as did Jesús Dueñas when he was not deployed on the back line.
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The trade of Acosta could open up a spot for 20-year-old defender Jair Díaz, Hugo Ayala’s partner in central defense could be Francisco Meza, while goalie Nahuel Guzmán is a reliable netminder.
All in all, this team is not getting any younger and another stumbling start could see the Tigres having a difficult time staying in the top 8, especially as rivals – like Pachuca and Guadalajara – made major changes in hopes of snaring a playoff berth.
Toluca undergoes a makeover
The last time the Diablos failed to make the playoffs was the Clausura 2016, but last season Toluca went 0-1-2 to finish the season and could have been eliminated had either Pachuca or Morelia won their final match. Truth be told, it was a dismal stretch run.
As the No. 7 seed, Toluca was dispatched in the quarterfinals by América on a 5-4 aggregate, giving up the eventual winning goal after an expulsion, demonstrating the discipline problem that plagued the team all season.
One way to address the issue was to trade skipper Rubens Sambueza – a perpetual antagonist – but coach Hernán Cristante must instill greater accountability in his players.
Cristante will also have to rely on veteran strikers who underperformed last season, particularly after the front office sold 21-year-old striker Alexis Vega – the club’s top scorer – to the Chivas without spending the 9 million-dollar windfall in the transfer market. The club also returned productive forward Luis Quiñones to the Tigres after his loan spell ended.
That means Enrique Triverio and Alexis Canelo must contribute more on offense, while Pablo Barrientos, Luis Mendoza and William da Silva will have to replace the playmaking that Sambueza always provided. Midfielder Leonel López just returned to the Diablos from León and he will get an opportunity also, but he is the lone acquisition thus far.
The Diablos have a veteran defense that often struggled when forced to play short-handed and, at the back, veteran goalie Alfredo Talavera will have to fight off the challenge of young keeper Luis Garcia.
Coach Cristante must have his club’s attention from the outset, while finding a rotation and tactical alignment that fits the roster he now has. If he is slow to find offensive productivity, the Diablos – like the Tigres – could be sitting at home when the Liguilla begins.