Guadalajara continue their quest for a historic first appearance in the final of the Copa Libertadores today, when they welcome Universidad de Chile for the first leg of their semi-final. Chivas fans everywhere will be hoping it is third time lucky for their side, having twice before fallen at the last-four stage.
The magnitude of the moment has not been lost on their goalkeeper, Luis Michel, who recently returned to club duty with four of his team-mates following the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The 31-year-old knows the critical role he will play in deciding whether Los Tapatíos grace the final and, as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, is adamant his side can rise to the occasion.
Making home advantage count
In reaching the semi-finals, Guadalajara not only had to overcome the likes of Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield and Libertad of Paraguay, they also had to cope with the absence of five key players, who swapped the red-and-white of Chivas for the green of Mexico ahead of the showpiece event in South Africa.
Yet despite their depleted squad, Los Tapatíos made the most of home advantage, securing 3-0 first-leg wins again both teams – leads that proved sufficient to ensure their progress in the competition. It comes as no surprise then to hear Michel say they will need another home win on Tuesday. “Most definitely. Everyone is clear about that. We’ve prepared so as to give our very best when we run out at the Azteca, take a lead away with us then make it count in Chile.”
It is only fitting that such a momentous game for Mexican football should be played in its most iconic stadium, the club having switched the match to the capital just as compatriots Cruz Azul did during their unforgettable Libertadores campaign of 2001. “Chivas belong to all of Mexico,” Michel says proudly. “Wherever we play, we feel at home. Despite only previously having been in the Azteca as the away team, we’ve always had enormous support there. This time, however, every last fan will be cheering for us,” he adds.
Of the five Guadalajara first team members who went to South Africa, all are back on club duty except Javier Hernandez, who recently completed a high-profile move to Manchester United. The remainder have been working hard to continue the excellent work done by their young replacements in their absence.
“We’re grateful to the young lads for having got us into the semi-final and are aware of what that that signifies. Right now, we’re all very enthusiastic, very hopeful. Some of the names on the team-sheet will be different, but the desire will be the very same,” the player insists.
For Michel, being called up by Javier Aguirre was a privilege and an education, and something he hopes he can put to good use against his opponents from Chile. “It was just incredible to go a World Cup and rub shoulders with the world's best. However, what really matters is being able to take the experience garnered there and put it to use out on the pitch. That’s what we must try to do.”
The keeper is also aware that Chivas face a very tough opponent in Universidad de Chile, who will also be seeking to cap a memorable campaign with a maiden final appearance. "They have some great players, and I think they’ll try to take the initiative from us here and keep things very tight at the back. What matters most, therefore, is that we play our game. By that I mean dictating proceedings, creating chances and then taking them. Sitting back and waiting for them would require us to change our style, and that’s never going to happen," he says.
Guadalajara go into the tie with the advantage of having played at the weekend, a scoreless draw in the league against Puebla that Michel feels served them well. “We’re match-fit and in good shape; Saturday’s game was a big help. We created scoring chances and looked good. Ok so we didn’t manage to score, but we’ll put that right on Tuesday.”
As Chivas seek to become the first Mexican side to lift the Libertadores crown, Michel signs off by insisting his team-mates are more than capable of going all the way. “Our goal is very clear. The Copa title is just four games away. First we need to get through 180 minutes and then focus on the final. We have a date with history – we’re all aware of that. We’re ready and very hungry to reach new heights. Come Tuesday you’ll see that on the pitch.”