Many fans would have preferred to see this match take place in the Finals, but it is what it is.
Preseason favorites América and Tigres are meeting in the playoffs just as the pundits predicted. However, the series is taking place two rounds too early and the loser will be knocked out of the Liguilla in the quarterfinals.
The Aguilas and their northern rivals have won seven league titles between them this decade, the Tigres accounting for four of them. The team that emerges from this series will undeniably deserve the moniker “Team of the Decade.” But it won’t end there as the winner will not be able to rest on their laurels because the semifinals will be next.
Both coaches have incentive to wear the crown this season. Tigres manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti would become the all-time winningest coach in Liga MX history with eight league titles. That would break his tie with the legendary Ignacio Trelles.
Miguel Herrera’s incentive is a bit more urgent. If he fails to win a title this year, América might not renew his contract when it expires next year.
But the players won’t be focused on what this series means for their coaches. They’ll be eager to claim bragging rights over their biggest antagonist.
Injuries and Line-up Changes
The Tigres will be short-handed as goalie Nahuel Guzmán has been sidelined with a thigh injury. On Wednesday, “Tuca” announced that 24-year-old Miguel Ortega will start in net and Thursday night’s first-leg match in Estadio Azteca will be his Liga MX debut. Ortega saw action in two Copa MX games last year, but that’s it. Expect the Aguilas to test the rookie early and often.
In addition, forward Edu Vargas picked up a knock to his right leg and he’ll miss at least the first leg, but here Ferretti has plenty of options to partner with striker André-Pierre Gignac up front. Lucas Zelarayán, Enner Valencia, Javier Aquino, Luis Quiñones and Juergen Damm each offer quality in attack.
On the other bench, Miguel Herrera will be without top-choice striker Nico Castillo who has been ruled out of the first-leg match at Estadio Azteca on Thursday night. América is hoping he will be ready to go for Sunday’s second leg.
Rookie Federico Viñas is also suffering fitness issues, so expect Roger Martínez to start up front alongside Henry Martín. Midfielder Gio dos Santos will be ready to go after suffering a scary leg injury on Sept. 28 and he will be making his Liguilla debut.
Everybody knows André-Pierre Gignac is the fulcrum of the Tigres offense, but with a debutante in goal, veteran central defender Hugo Ayala is likely to be the most important player on the field for “Tuca.” Ayala has enjoyed his usual quiet, but ruthlessly efficient year despite rotating partners. Sidekick Carlos Salcedo has not had an especially great season, and he will have to play mistake-free soccer against an América side that can be deadly.
Equally important for the visitors will be ball control and tempo. The Tigres led the league in time of possession (61 percent) and they will strive to play keepaway and limit the Aguilas chances, especially early in the match so that Ortega can settle in. América normally sits back and absorbs pressure before launching lethal counter-attack strikes, but they might be eager to harass the Tigres since they will want to have a lead heading to Monterrey for the return match.
Winger Renato Ibarra is a dynamo and his battle against Tigres fullbacks (most likely Jesús Dueñas on the left side) will be interesting to watch. When Ibarra escapes his first marker (and often a second as well), he produces space for the forwards. Henry Martín should be the beneficiary, but Dos Santos could also find room in midfield to create.
Midfielder Guido Rodríguez has not had an injury-free season and if he is called upon to do a lot of chasing he might wear down late in the game. “El Piojo” Herrera might be looking to sub him out after an hour or so, especially if he wants him fully fit for the return match. Fernando González and Leo López will have to step up big, if called upon.