Defeating the confident Rayados of Monterrey to reach the Liga MX Final seems like a tall order for the Tigres.
Since winning their last Liga MX title in the Apertura 2017, the Tigres have been the league’s biggest underachievers.
Blessed with enormous talent and a deep roster, the Monterrey-based club seemed content to coast through the regular season with the expectation that they would simply “turn it on” in the playoffs. But that strategy has failed miserably.
For two straight seasons (Clausura 2018 and Apertura 2018), the Tigres were knocked out of the Liguilla in the quarterfinals. In both instances, Tuca Ferretti’s squad was the lower seed but still was favored to advance.
This season, the Tigres fought through injuries (striker André-Pierre Gignac and winger Javier Aquino missed significant time) but easily claimed the No. 2 seed despite not rediscovering the dominance they enjoyed back in 2017 and earlier.
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In the quarterfinals, seventh-seeded Pachuca exposed the Tigres as a slow, indecisive club and nearly eliminated the favorites, coming up short thanks to a miracle goal by Gignac in minute 84 of the second leg.
Now in the semifinals, the Tigres face elimination after crosstown rivals Monterrey throttled them in the first leg with tight defense and flashy offense. The Rayados only managed a 1-0 lead and the return match is on the Tigres’ home turf, but Monterrey will not be intimidated, having already defeated the Tigres in the Concacaf Champions League Final less than a month ago.
Lacking offensive spark
In their heyday, the Tigres dominated with superior skill, offensive patience and a suffocating defense. The skill is still evident though no longer fine-tuned, the offensive patience is rarer to find and the defense has displayed some vulnerabilities.
The injury to Gignac forced some tactical adjustments, but Enner Valencia, Edu Vargas, Luis Quiñones and Julian Quiñones forged a reliable working relationship. Then Julian suffered a knee injury and Aquino returned to the line-up, while Gignac’s return sent Vargas to the bench. The lack of production since has been painful to watch.
Aquino has not been as dangerous on the wing while Gignac is still rounding into shape. But the missing ingredient is a quarterback in midfield, someone who can distribute the ball and open space on the wing by demanding attention. The result has often been hurried long passes from the defense and lost possession.
In my opinion, coach Ferretti should insert Vargas in place of Valencia and consider subbing in Juergen Damm for Aquino for the second half. Vargas can roam through midfield behind Gignac and triangulate with Quiñones or Aquino to move the ball upfield. The speedy Damm – though not as skilled as Aquino when the latter is playing at his best – provides a change of pace that will surely widen the field.
Stopping the Rayados
Monterrey knows that a single goal will force the Tigres to score 3 in order to advance and the Rayados defense has been stubborn against their bitter rivals. Monterrey has not lost to the Tigres in their past 7 league matches and the Rayados have only given up 4 goals in those 7 games, and Monterrey defeated the Tigres 2-1 on aggregate in the recent Concacaf Champions League Final. The last time the Tigres defeated Monterrey 3-1 was in the Apertura 2015.
Of course, an easier route to the Liga MX Final would be a 1-0 victory which would allow the Tigres to advance as the higher seed. But shutting out the confident Rayados is no easy task.
Even if the Tigres are more patient on offense, the Rayados don’t need much time on the ball to score. Midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro is a wizard with the ball at his feet and he has been causing the Tigres fits. Striker Rogelio Funes Mori needs only a sliver of space and a micro-second with the ball to get a shot on goal and Dorlan Pabón and Avilés Hurtado are quite dynamic on the wings. On set pieces, defenders Nico Sánchez and Stefan Medina are dangerous in the air.
To make matters worse, left back Jesús Dueñas is sidelined with a head injury suffered in the first leg, which means veteran Jorge Torres Nilo will be forced to chase Pabón. Right back Luis Rodríguez had such a poor performance in the first leg he was subbed out late. In addition, central defender Carlos Salcedo has been wildly inconsistent and is usually good for at least one terrible mistake per game. Early in Wednesday’s first leg, Salcedo misjudged a high ball and headed it toward his own goal right into the path of Funes Mori. Fortunately, goalie Nahuel Guzmán was up to the task and he blocked the initial shot then forced Funes Mori to fire wide with his second attempt.
If the Tigres are going to win and reach the Final, they must find a steady offensive rhythm and establish a possession advantage. They must also prevent the Rayados from gathering momentum heading into the box AND Guzmán must have a monster game. Coach Ferretti must also be prepared to make changes in both tactics and personnel (Lucas Zelarayán and Valencia for offensive adjustments, and Fernando Meza on defense).
That all seems like a tall order for a Tigres team that knows Monterrey is not intimidated in the least.