Mexican rivals at the ready
This Saturday sees the start of the latest Liguilla in Mexico, with eight sides set to vie for the title of 2008 Apertura champions. After 17 intense matchdays, the regular season ended last weekend with a dramatic conclusion to the race for the play-off berths.
Of the four quarter-final pairings, the clash of Clausura champions Santos Laguna and the regular season's top side San Luis clearly catches the eye. Another fixture competing for top billing is the meeting of Pumas UNAM and Cruz Azul, two of the country's most popular sides. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, though, was that Guadalajara and America, Mexico's two biggest clubs, missed out altogether. FIFA.com takes a look back at the regular season and previews all the action from the upcoming Liguilla.
If one club deserve to be singled out for their performance in the Apertura, it would have to be Real San Luis. More accustomed to battling for their top-flight status, the side dubbed 'The Gladiators' have confounded the experts and enjoyed their best season since returning to the Primera Division three years ago.
With veteran tactician Raul Arias at the helm, the team from Potosi topped the regular season standings with 29 points, and this without any big-name stars. Their form this term has been characterised by a strong team spirit and an impressive away record that has seen them win four times on the road.
There was very little to separate the teams immediately beneath them in the overall standings, with only two points between second-placed Toluca (27) and Tigres (25) in seventh. Indeed, Chivas, who only just missed out on a Liguilla spot, also had 25 points but paid dearly for their inferior goal difference.
And while Guadalajara can point to their additional Copa Sudamericana commitments as a mitigating factor in their failure to qualify, there was no such excuse for arch-rivals America. Ramon Diaz's side had hoped to give their beleaguered fans something to cheer about after missing out on the two previous Liguillas, but it was not to be after Las Águilas finished bottom of Group 2.
Clausura champions Santos Laguna were almost left on the sidelines as well after an inconsistent campaign that saw them finish 11th in the overall standings. However, with the top two from each of the league's three groups qualifying automatically, their modest haul of 22 points was enough for them to take runners-up spot in a weak Group 1.
All to play for
The first legs of the quarter-finals get underway with Saturday's showdown between Cruz Azul and Pumas, unquestionably the two biggest sides still in contention. The Cementeros have had the better of their league meeting with the Pumas in recent times, but the roles have been reversed when they have faced off in the Liguilla.
The feast of football then continues with Tigres going up against Atlante in what promises to be an interesting clash of styles. The Nuevo Leon side, with their core of experienced players, are coached by Manuel Lapuente, a man renowned for his tight defences and possession football, while the young Potros de Hierro are under the stewardship of the attack-minded Jose Cruz.
The drama continues on Sunday when Tecos and Toluca go head-to-head. The Guadalajara side looked out of the running for the play-offs after a poor start to the season, but the arrival of ultra-attacking coach Miguel Herrera coincided with a complete reversal in their fortunes. Facing them will be a Toluca side spearheaded by Hector Mancilla, the Apertura's top scorer this year on 11.
Rounding off the matchday is a fixture to savour, with defending champions Santos Laguna going up against the regular season's top side, San Luis. The Potosinos will need to at their sharpest, however, despite the former's irregular campaign, with Santos perhaps boasting the strongest squad in the country. Among their numbers are established Mexico internationals Oswaldo Sanchez, Fernando Arce and Matias Vuoso, while adding further spice to the mix will be El Tri legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco, brought in especially for the play-offs.
The regular season provided drama aplenty and the play-offs are sure to provide even more. With a host of in-form sides in the running and four ties that are too close to call, fans of Mexican football are in for a veritable treat over the coming weeks.