Playoff berth on the line as Pachuca visits Necaxa

Necaxa can take a big step toward playoff qualification with a win over visiting Pachuca, one of the league’s worst road teams.

With the playoffs only three weeks away, Necaxa and Pachuca are battling to return to the Liguilla for the first time since the Apertura 2016 when No. 7 seed Necaxa eliminated the No. 2 and defending champion Tuzos in a major upset.

Both teams have 24 points, but neither has an easy schedule remaining, so a setback in this game could threaten the loser’s playoff chances as Puebla and Toluca are making late pushes to reach the postseason.

Last match

Atlas 1, Necaxa 2

Midfielder Fernando González scored the opener for the Rayos in the first half but was shown a red card late in the match (so he is unavailable for Saturday’s match) as Necaxa won its fifth road game. Shifty winger Daniel Álvarez was granted playing time for the first time in a while and he contributed a splendid goal, dribbling 45 meters down the left flank, into the box, then stutter-stepping around Esteban Carvajal in the box before firing a low shot inside the far post. Goalie Hugo González made a couple nice saves for Necaxa before a goal late in stoppage ruined his shutout.

Pachuca 9, Veracruz 2

The Tuzos became the first Liga MX team to score 9 goals in a match since UNAM spanked the Tecos UAG on May 16, 1976. Leo Ulloa got a hat trick while Franco Jara and Víctor Guzmán each netted twice as the Tuzos raced out to a 6-1 halftime lead. Pachuca continued its impressive form at home (7-0-0, 25 goals for, 5 goals against) and are now 6-3-2 since changing coaches after Matchday 3.

Possible line-ups

Necaxa: 4-4-2

H.González

Meza – Peña – Alvarado – Calderón

Fernández – Gallegos – Plascencia – Sepúlveda

Herrera – Contreras

Felipe Gallegos was suspended for the Atlas game so he’ll return and step in for the suspended Fernando González. The back line has stabilized since Fernando Meza was inserted into the line-up and he has worked well with youngster Alexis Peña who will be playing against his former team. Brian Fernández will again be the focal point and Eduardo Herrera will try to occupy defenders in the middle in order to give Fernández room on the right flank.

Pachuca: 4-3-1-2

Blanco

López – Barreiro – Murillo – García

Guzmán – Hernández – Aguirre

Cardona

Jara – Ulloa

Edwin Cardona is the Tuzos’ quarterback and his ability to pause and survey his options has sliced open a number of defenses. Veteran strikers Franco Jara and Leo Ulloa must win their battles against the young Rayos defense while Manny García will have his hands full with Necaxa’s top scorer Brian Fernández.

Key players

Necaxa: Midfielder Felipe Gallegos must shadow Edwin Cardona and interrupt his playmaking attempts. If he can shut down the Tuzos’ midfield general, the Rayos could find opportunities for counter-attacks.

Pachuca: Central defenders Jaine Barreiro and Oscar Murillo must clamp down on Eduardo Herrera and Rodrigo Contreras so that the rest of the defense is free to chase Brian Fernández and close down his space to limit his runs into the box.

Prediction

Pachuca is third-worst in the league on the road (0-3-4) and have been outscored 3-17 away from home. This must change if they wish to make any noise in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Necaxa has only the 14th best home record, winning only 2 of 6 games. A tie would probably be an acceptable outcome for both teams (points are at a premium this late in the season), but I don’t see that happening. Here, I’ll allow my rooting interest to influence my prediction …

Necaxa 2, Pachuca 1