Santos hit the jackpot again
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Santos Laguna were a mere 90 minutes away from losing their top-flight status. After avoiding the dreaded drop with a nail-biting win over Cruz Azul on the last day of the 2007 Clausura, Los Guerreros surged back in the best possible style, claiming the Mexican title after seeing off the very same rivals in the 2008 Clausura play-off final.
Boasting the likes of goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, midfielder Fernando Arce, and strikers Daniel Luduena and Cristian Benitez in their star-studded ranks, and with the firm hand of Daniel Guzman at the reins, Santos proved worthy winners of what is the third championship in their history. Here to take stock of their achievement and all the ups and downs in the recently-concluded Mexican league season is FIFA.com.
The top three
What makes Santos' success all the more remarkable is that the side that took them to the title was virtually unchanged from the one that narrowly avoided relegation last year. The secret to their stunning campaign was balance, Los Laguneros storming to second place in the regular season thanks to the most potent attack in the league and the third-tightest defence. And when the chips were down in the eight-team play-off, Santos held their nerve to go unbeaten.
Runners-up Cruz Azul came mightily close to penning the fairy tale of the season. Coached by the Paraguayan Sergio Markarian and marshalled by the fresh-faced twosome of Cesar Villaluz and Edgar Andrade, the youthful Cementeros came within a single goal of forcing extra-time in the play-off final and breaking their ten-year trophy drought - an eternity for one of the giants of Mexican football.
In reaching the semi-finals, San Luis and Monterrey proved to be the season's revelations. The team from Potosi were indebted to the extensive play-off experience of wily coach Raul Arias, and have more than held their own over the last few seasons despite lacking the big budgets of the country's elite clubs.
As for Monterrey, it took some time for their undoubtedly talented squad to grasp the philosophy of the inimitable Ricardo La Volpe. But after a late-season surge, Los Rayados came within a minute of knocking out the eventual champions in a memorable semi-final duel.
A season to forget
Much more was expected of the 2007 Apertura champions and runners-up. After seeing their teams put together spectacular campaigns last year, Atlante and Pumas fans were entitled to believe they would be staking compelling claims again as the new season dawned. But neither Los Potros nor Los Universitarios were able to maintain their form, both of them failing to even make the play-offs.
Another side who could and should have done better were America. The team with the proudest record in the country suffered the worst season in their glittering history and were condemned to last place in the table long before they completed their fixture list. A demoralising run of 11 defeats in 12 games, the worst Las Águilas have ever experienced, summed it all up.
Santos's season-long consistency and balance provided the perfect stage for their leading men to shine. Between the posts, Sanchez continued to showcase his feline reflexes and defy the passage of time, enhancing his glowing reputation even further. In front of him, Argentinian central-defender Fernando Ortiz orchestrated the back line with distinction.
In midfield Juan Pablo Rodriguez reproduced the kind of form he once displayed for Atlas, and Arce showed just why he has become a permanent fixture in the Mexico set-up. And up front the peerless attacking triumvirate of Matias Vuoso, Benitez and Luduena combined physical presence, pace and guile.
Despite coming off second best, Los Celestes have a similarly strong squad. The veteran trio of skipper Gerardo Torrado, Joaquin Beltran and Jaime Lozano showed the way for a promising generation that includes Cesar Villaluz, Edgar Andrade, Gerardo Lugo, Julio Dominguez and keeping sensation Yosgart Gutierrez. With that kind of personnel on their books, Cruz Azul should be back for another crack at the whip next season.
The top scorer
After another a miserable six-month spell in which a return to South America looked on the cards, Humberto Suazo suddenly embarked on a spectacular scoring spree for Monterrey. The Chilean's 13-goal haul, which included four in one game against Veracruz, ensured he ended the season as the league's top scorer, three strikes clear of Vuoso and Pumas forward Esteban Solari.
Did you know?
In the last two seasons the teams standing top of the table at the end of the regular season have failed to win the championship. Santos Laguna were top dogs in the 2007 Apertura but were knocked out in the play-offs by Pumas, and 2008 Clausura frontrunners Guadalajara fell in the play-off quarter-finals to Monterrey.
What they said
"This just goes to show that when you've got faith and believe in a project you can achieve great things. God has been good to us. First of all, we avoided relegation, then we finished Superlíderes [the team with the best combined record in the regular Apertura and Clausura seasons] and ended up the highest scoring team in the last two championships," Santos Laguna coach Daniel Guzman.
"We really gave it our best shot but sadly it wasn't enough. They took their chances while we missed ours and that's why we came up short. But that's football and now we have to pick ourselves up and look to the future. I'd like to congratulate Santos too. They're an excellent side," Cruz Azul goalkeeper Yosgart Gutierrez.
Champions: Santos Laguna
Runners-up: Cruz Azul
Semi-finalists: San Luis and Monterrey
Humberto Suazo (13 goals)
Matias Vuoso (10)
Esteban Solari (10)
Itamar Batista (10)
Sergio Santana (9)