Necaxa, aka ‘Road Warriors,’ travel to Monterrey

Monterrey hosts Necaxa in the first leg of their semifinal series on Wednesday night. Necaxa won the regular-season match-up 2-0. (Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Monterrey hosts Necaxa in the first leg of their semifinal series on Wednesday night. Necaxa won the regular-season match-up 2-0. (Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

The Rayos were the top road team in Liga MX and they open their semifinal series against the Rayados away from home.

The No. 8 seed Rayados of Monterrey welcome the No. 5 seed Rayos of Necaxa to Estadio BBVA Bancomer tonight to kick off the Liga MX semifinals. Despite being the lower seed, Monterrey is heavily favored to advance to the Finals.

The Rayados have the league’s highest payroll (in excess of $90 million dollars) while Necaxa features a more modest $25 million-dollar line-up. Monterrey was a popular pundit’s choice to hoist the Liga MX trophy this season (along with the Tigres and América), but they suffered through inconsistency and injuries, but persevered through a coaching change to qualify for the Liguilla on the final weekend of the regular season.

But before we pencil Monterrey into the Finals bracket, let’s take a closer look at this match-up.

No. 5 Necaxa vs No. 8 Monterrey

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Necaxa is a surprise semifinalist, but they performed at a consistently high level throughout the Apertura. The Rayos even sat in first place on three occasions this season, before fading down the stretch (losing two of their last three) and sinking into the No. 5 seed.

After a 1-1-2 start – both losses coming on the road – Necaxa handed the league-leading Guerreros of Santos a 3-0 loss at Estadio Victoria. Santos had come into the game with a 4-0-0 record and a 12-2 goal differential.

The Rayos followed that upset with a 2-1 win at Guadalajara, beginning a six-game winning streak away from home. From Matchday 5 through Matchday 15, Necaxa posted a 7-3-1 record with a 22-13 goal differential.

Meanwhile, Monterrey started off the season with two straight losses on the road before winning four of their next five. Then they seemed to hit a wall.

Necaxa on road at Monterrey
Necaxa’s Jesús Angulo (L) celebrates after scoring against Monterrey during their Sept. 14 meeting, a 2-0 victory for the Rayos. (Photo by JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images) /

The Rayados went 1-1-3 over their next five games – including a stunning shutout loss at lowly FC Juárez and a 2-0 setback at home to Necaxa. When bitter rivals Tigres another 2-0 home loss on Matchday 12, Rayados management canned Diego Alonso and brought back Antonio Mohamed. “El Turco” gradually restored joy to Monterrey’s playing style and the Rayados piled up 10 points down the stretch (a 3-1-0 record) to claim the final playoff spot.

What to watch for

These two teams met in the quarterfinals last season with Monterrey – the No. 3 seed – advancing after each team 1-0 on their home field. The Rayados moved on as the higher seed, but the Rayos had not been intimidated by the environment at the always rowdy Estadio BBVA Bancomer.

Monterrey has only 2 wins in the last 8 meetings between these two teams, but they are flying high after dominating top-seeded Santos in the quarterfinals. They scored 6 times despite playing without leading scorer Rogelio Funes Mori.

The Argentine striker is not at full fitness yet after suffering a calf injury in the season finale, but Vincent Janssen has been very impressive as a fill-in. Midfield playmaker Rodolfo Pizarro is also available after he missed the first leg against Santos.

The interplay between Dorlan Pabón and Janssen was deadly against Santos so Necaxa’s fullbacks will have to limit Pabón’s space and movement. Midfielder Jesús Gallardo is very effective with overlapping runs and creating plays into the box, so the Rayos will have their hands full.

As for Necaxa, striker Mauro Quiroga is the focal point of the Rayos attack and central defenders Nico Sánchez and César Montes will try to stay inside his shirt. Quiroga is effective in the air and with ball distribution (he had a team-high 5 assists), but he has not scored Nov. 9.

Midfielder Felipe Gallegos and left back Cristian Calderón have been superb on the counter while not neglecting their defensive responsibilities. They will have to continue that form because the Rayados flow forward so effectively.

The goalies will be in the spotlight, too. Necaxa’s Hugo González (on loan from Monterrey) has had a splendid season, attracting interest from Team Mexico coach Gerardo Martino. Rayados keeper Marcelo Barovero (acquired from Necaxa in May 2018) is a solid veteran who rarely makes mistakes.

On the benches, Mohamed and Guillermo Vázquez will match wits. Although Mohamed has a deeper bench, “Memo” can rely on Kevin Mercado and “Lalo” Herrera as offensive subsitutions.

Necaxa’s No. 1 job will be to absorb the intense pressure Monterrey will exert and try to limit clear scoring opportunities. That’s easier said than done as Santos learned last week.