Toluca spot on in decider
© AFP

Toluca have firmly established themselves among Mexico's elite over the past decade. Indeed, Sunday's penalty shootout success over Cruz Azul handed Los Diablos Rojos their sixth league title since 1998 and ninth overall, making them the fourth most successful club in Mexican league history.

For those who have followed the course of the Apertura 2008, the fact that the title was ultimately decided on spot-kicks will be somewhat fitting. Rarely has a season been so evenly matched, dramatic and packed with surprises - a trend that continued right to the end, with Cruz Azul fighting back from a 2-0 home reverse in the first leg to level the tie in Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez. Even the shootout was a lengthy affair, Los Choriceros eventually winning 7-6 after La Máquina Celeste's Alejandro Vela, scorer of his side's opener on Sunday, had his penalty saved.

The top two
Even before the Apertura campaign began, Toluca coach Jose Manuel de la Torre had anticipated that his side would come up against Cruz Azul in the final of the play-offs. No doubt bearing the fruits of this impressive attention to detail, De la Torre's well-balanced squad were the best all-round team in the league, basing their success on a redoubtable backline and the solidity of keeper Hernan Cristante.

Cruz Azul pushed them all the way, however, only to be left to rue their second consecutive Liguilla final defeat. Despite the end result, Benjamin Galindo's gallant young charges will surely take heart from a thrilling second-leg display.

The surprise packages
San Luis continued their progression of recent years, with Raul Arias's team finishing top of the overall regular season standings. In the Liguilla, though, Clausura 2008 champions Santos Laguna, boosted by the addition of Mexico legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco, proved too great an obstacle for the Potosinos to overcome.

The disappointments
Traditional heavyweights America finished bottom of the pile in this year's Clausura, but if their millions of fans were expecting a vast improvement in the Apertura they were to be sorely disappointed. Despite boasting a talent-packed squad and an experienced coach in Argentinian Ramon Diaz, Las Águilas never looked capable of securing a Liguilla place and bowed out of contention with two rounds of regular-season matches still to play.

The star men
Toluca's greatest asset was their collective strength, so to single out just one of several key players would be an injustice. Veteran Argentinian keeper Hernan Cristante continues to cement his iconic status at the club, even going a record 771 minutes without conceding a goal, while Paraguayan centre-back Paulo da Silva was consistently excellent at the heart of the Choriceros' backline.

Perhaps the man to have the greatest impact on the team's success was defensive midfielder Israel Lopez, whose return from injury coincided with a run of just one defeat from 11 matches and a mere three goals conceded over the same spell. Nor must we forget the contribution of Chilean forward Hector Mancilla, the Apertura's top scorer with 11 goals.

The top scorer
Toluca goal-getter Mancilla was playing in Mexican football's second tier with Coatzacoalcos as recently as the Clausura 2008, but Los Diablos Rojos' faith in the 28-year-old forward was repaid. Scorer of 11 goals in just 17 regular-season appearances, the former Veracruz hitman helped himself to another two goals in Liguilla action.

Did you know?
The last time a club lost two consecutive Liguilla finals was back in 2002/03 cycle. Having been beaten by Toluca in the final of the Apertura 2002, Morelia were subsequently edged out by Monterrey in the Clausura 2003. The wounds must still be fresh for the team from Michoacan state, who have not reached the final since.

What they said
"You don't need to score loads of goals to win the championship. It was tough, it was difficult and Cruz Azul played a brilliant match, but victory was ours. I really went through the mill, at one point I despaired of our chances, but I'm so happy (to have won). There's a real sense of satisfaction for a job well done. These feelings are hard to put into words," Antonio Naelson, Toluca midfielder.

Final standings
Champions: Toluca
Runners-up: Cruz Azul
Semi-finalists: Santos Laguna and Atlante

Top scorers
1. Hector Mancilla (11 goals)
2. Andres Mendoza (10)
3. Hugo Rodallega (9)
3. Adolfo Bautista (9)
5. Christian Gimenez and Lucas Lobos (8)