The Liga MX semifinals are officially set! The quarterfinal round of the Liga MX playoffs are now over, leaving four teams in the running for the 2022 Clausura title. In case you missed any of the latest action, here are four talking points from the quarterfinals and some thoughts ahead of this week’s two-legged semifinal matches.
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Club America ride hot streak into semis
Around two months ago, No. 4 seed Club America were dead last in the Liga MX table. Today, they’re the comeback story of the season. After going on an undefeated run in their last 10 games, Las Aguilas have now qualified for the semifinal round under interim manager Fernando Ortiz.
It’s an astonishing revival, but after defeating No. 5 seed Puebla 4-3 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, much of the conversation about the team has surrounded the decisions made by officiating in Club America’s latest result on Saturday.
Following a 1-1 draw in the first leg last Wednesday, referee Fernando Guerrero was criticized by media and fans in the second leg for overlooking a possible red for Club America’s Alejandro Zendejas and for allowing the Mexico City team to retake a penalty during Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Puebla.
After supposedly stepping off his line in a first penalty attempt that he saved, Puebla goalkeeper Antony Silva conceded a goal from Club America’s Diego Valdes off a second opportunity. Silva took to social media, asking for those in charge to not “destroy” the game through these decisions, and included images of his foot on the line in the first penalty.
That said, Valdes had yet to make contact with the ball in the images provided, and when reviewing replays of the moment, it does look as if Silva was slightly off his line, thereby highlighting that the decision to retake the penalty was likely correct. As for the possible red for Zendejas, Club America may have lucked out on the reckless challenge from the FC Dallas academy product, who would go on to score their third of the match.
Right or wrong from Guerrero, any and all refereeing decisions in the upcoming semifinal series between Club America and No. 1 seed Pachuca will now be put under a microscope. That in mind, Club America will still have plenty of momentum under Ortiz and will be a more stern challenge for a Pachuca side that weren’t entirely convincing in their own quarterfinals series.
Atlas halt Chivas, stay on repeat title course
Just like Club America, there seemed to be a similar rejuvenation brewing with No. 6 seed Chivas over in Guadalajara. With interim manager Ricardo Cadena leading the way, Los Rojiblancos sprinted into the quarterfinals with five consecutive victories, including a dominant 4-1 thrashing of Pumas in the Liguilla’s play-in round.
That momentum came to a screeching halt last week when they faced current title-holders and crosstown rivals Atlas. In Thursday’s first leg at Chivas’ Estadio Akron, 21-year-old Atlas midfielder Jeremy Marquez led the No. 3 seed to a 2-1 away victory with two goals in the result. On Sunday’s second leg, things went from bad to worse for Chivas in a first half that included an injury to starting goalkeeper Miguel “Wacho” Jimenez, two shots hitting the woodwork, and a goal from Atlas’ Anibal Chala right before halftime.
There was a sliver of hope for Chivas after Atlas’ Marquez earned a red in the 70th minute, but due to the higher seed tiebreaker, they would need to score at least three times in the second half. A lone goal from Chivas’ Jose Juan Macias, which would end the game at 1-1, was far from enough to balance out the aggregate result that finished 3-2 in Atlas’ advantage.
Next up for Atlas in their chase of back-to-back titles: A semifinal series against No. 2 seed Tigres. Atlas will be without the suspended Marquez in the first leg, and also more notably despite their place in the semis, without a goal or assist from their front two of Julian Quiñones and Julio Furch in their previous three appearances.
Tigres survive Cruz Azul battle
The second-best side of the Liga MX regular season will also have some questions hanging above Tigres’ heads.
Up against No. 8 seed Cruz Azul, Tigres had the most nervy and anxious finish of the eventual semifinalists, squeezing into the next round at 1-1 on aggregate and escaping as the higher seed.
In Thursday’s away leg, Tigres 1-0 win was a bittersweet one that featured a direct card for not only manager Miguel “Piojo” Herrera, but also winger Nico “Diente” Lopez. During Sunday’s second leg, the tally of reds would continue with another for left wing-back Javier Aquino right before halftime. Cruz Azul manager Juan Reynoso, who briefly hid the ball away from Tigres during a throw-in, was also shown a red.
Cruz Azul didn’t have their manager, but at the very least, they had a one-man advantage and a 1-0 lead (1-1 on aggregate) in the second half after Christian Tabo scored in the 19th minute. Both sides traded several shots in the final 45 minutes, but with goalkeepers Nahuel Guzman and Sebastian Jurado stepping up in net, it was Tigres who eventually secured a semifinal ticket thanks to finishing higher than Cruz Azul in the league table.
“It’s a shame it didn’t happen in the aggregate, but if you all do an analysis, surely in possession and in the statistics, we were superior in the attack,” said Cruz Azul assistant coach Jaime Serna in the post-game.
Thanks to some numbers from TruMedia/StatsPerform, it was in fact Tigres who finished with more shots (21) and a higher xG of 1.56 in comparison to Cruz Azul’s 0.72. In possession, Cruz Azul did finish higher with 58.1%.
Regardless of these stats that look more favorably to Tigres, they weren’t able to find the back of the net and will likely need to score more than just once over two matches if they hope to surpass Atlas in the semis.
Pachuca show why they’re top team
Heading into the playoffs, there was a lot to like about league-leaders Pachuca. As not only the joint-top goalscorers of the regular season, but also the joint-best defense when it came to goals allowed, Los Tuzos were expected to breeze past No. 8 seed San Luis.
Although Pachuca would go on to win 5-4 on aggregate, San Luis made the series a surprisingly tight one and created problems for the favorites with their direct style of play. Level at 2-2 after Wednesday’s away leg, Pachuca’s occasional lapses in defense continued into Saturday’s home leg, which ended in a tight 3-2 win.
“The important thing is to correct [our problems], strengthen the things that we are doing well,” said Pachuca manager Guillermo Almada after the match. “Above all, to recover our defensive security.”
The good news for the regular season’s first place team — outside of higher seeding being the first tiebreaker in the quarterfinals and semifinals — is that star striker Nicolas Ibañez appears capable of papering over any possible cracks.
The 27-year-old Argentine has been in superb form with four goals in his last two playoff appearances. It’s also worth noting that the last time Pachuca faced Club America, Ibañez needed just 28 minutes at the Estadio Azteca to score in an eventual 3-1 away win. Club America are an entirely different side from the one that lacked motivation earlier this year, but the striker should once again be a difference-maker.