With the regular season having come to a close, the 2009 Mexican Apertura now enters the play-off phase. Eight sides remain in the running for the domestic crown and the battle to succeed Clausura champions Pumas UNAM gets under way on Friday evening.
Los Auriazules are surprisingly absent from the final phase after a disappointing title defence. Also missing out are last season’s runners-up Pachuca and the mighty Guadalajara, all of which has made the eight-team liguilla even harder to call.
As the final day of the regular season dawned, no fewer than four sides were in with a chance of topping the standings and earning the right to home advantage in the second legs of the knockout rounds. In the end it was Toluca who topped the pile, confirming their ability to come good when the occasion demands.
Los Diablos’ opponents in the quarter-finals are Real San Luis, who finished 11th in the overall standings but won through thanks to the fact that they were competing in the weakest of the three groups. On paper, then, Toluca ought to sail through, although the men from Potosi have absolutely nothing to lose, which makes them dangerous opponents.
Puebla are also underdogs in their tie against Cruz Azul, another of the candidates for the title. Coached by Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, Puebla have one of the smallest budgets in the Mexican top flight. Yet, after reaching the Clausura 2009 semi-finals, they have excelled once again thanks in no small part to a solid defence and a strong team ethic.
For their part Los Celestes have experienced quite a turnaround since the arrival of Emmanuel Villa from Derby County six months ago. The Argentinian striker quickly put his luckless spell in England behind him by hitting 17 goals to finish the league season as top scorer. Cruz Azul will be banking on him to keep that form going and help them end a 12-year trophy drought.
The return of Las Águilas
The third of the four ties involves an intriguing clash of styles as another surprise package, the attack-minded youngsters of Monarcas Morelia, take on a well-drilled Santos Laguna side.
The meeting also means the return of a coach who has managed to revive his career. After five years in the wilderness, Tomas Boy has made a successful return to the team from Michoacán, the scene of his greatest triumphs. An advocate of attacking football, the former Mexico international has made his mark on a team packed with gifted youngsters and spearheaded by goalscorer Miguel Sabah and the creative Elias Hernandez.
Sergio Bueno, Santos Laguna's coach, has performed some miracles himself to make his team play like the sum of all its talented parts. After a disappointing first half of the season, the likes of Daniel Ludueña, Fernando Arce and Oswaldo Sánchez finally got themselves together and after a long unbeaten run finished in sixth place overall.
The fourth and final match-up is perhaps the most even of them all and involves America, who make their return to the eight-team finale after a two-year absence, and the fearsome Santos Laguna. Las Águilas are a team reborn under Jesus Ramirez, the coach who steered Mexico to glory at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2005, and boast a star-studded line-up that includes the likes of goalkeeper Guillermo 'Memo' Ochoa and Paraguayan front man Salvador Cabanas.
Opposite number Victor Manuel Vucetich enjoyed his finest hours in the 1990s, winning titles with both Leon and Tecos before experiencing a career downturn. In Monterrey, however, he has found the perfect environment in which to preach his message of tactical order and discipline and his team will be no small rivals for the all-powerful Mexico City's Águilas.