By Jose M. Romero
For Fox Deportes
The playoffs in Mexico’s Primera Division of soccer held form, and it’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 for the Clausura championship this week.
Monterrey against Santos Laguna. Fans have seen this before, as recently as a few weeks ago. The Rayados and Guerreros played a two-leg series for the CONCACAF region club championship, won by Monterrey on aggregate goals.
So Santos has a score to settle, and will open the two-leg Mexican championship series at Estadio Tecnologico in Monterrey Thursday night. From there, the series moves to Estadio TSM Corona in Torreon Sunday evening.
The top two seeds in the liguilla (playoffs) meet in the final series for the first time in 12 years and are separated by 220 miles of distance. These are two teams that are loaded with scorers and finished near the top of the league in goals scored, so it’s reasonable to expect a lot of offense.
Monterrey had the easier path in the semifinals, ousting Club America 2-0. Santos got in the hard way, coming back from a 3-1 deficit on aggregate goals to force a 3-3 draw at home and advance because they were the higher seed.
Santos needed two goals in the last five minutes of the match against UANL Tigres to earn a draw, both from striker Oribe Peralta with assists from Darwin Quintero.
Peralta is a former Monterrey player who scored 13 goals in the regular season. He’ll certainly be motivated to beat his former team. And undoubtedly, the image of the Rayados celebrating on their home pitch after the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final still burns inside the minds of the Laguneros and their fans.
Santos players compared their exciting finish last weekend to that of English Premier League champion Manchester City earlier Sunday, then spoke of revenge against Monterrey.
Peralta, Quintero, Christian Suarez and American Herculez Gomez are all target forwards who can find the back of the next in a hurry. Quintero was a major matchup problem for Monterrey in the CCL final leg.
If Santos can continue to ride the wave of confidence and emotion they got from the victory over Tigres, they’ll be hard to beat. A No. 2 hasn’t defeated a No. 1 in the Mexican championship since Cruz Azul beat Leon. But Monterrey is the more technically sound and better defensive team.
The Rayados are in better form and if their midfield, led by Neri Cardozo and Walter Ayovi, can work the ball with regularity to scorers Humberto Suazo and Aldo De Nigris, among others, they will hard to stop. Monterrey has been able to advance because other players have stepped up to play important roles, as well.
The two teams met for the Apertura championship in 2010, won by Monterrey. In fact, Monterrey has won two of the past five league championships and seeks its third trophy in six.
Santos Laguna has been to four of the past five First Division finals including this year, but has yet to win one.