Luis Bueno
Friday April 11th, 2008

Since Mexican clubs began competing in the Copa Libertadores a decade ago, their form in league play has had little bearing on their quest for ultimate Latin American glory.

Nowhere is that more clear than during this year's campaigns. Atlas is struggling to keep pace in the domestic playoff race, while Club América's Liguilla quest died long ago. Chivas de Guadalajara has had the best record in the league since the start and has just one loss through 13 weeks.

Yet it's Atlas and América who are nearly through to the Copa quarterfinals while Chivas needs a bit of divine intervention to get out of the group stage.

The Libertadores has provided moments of elated joy and vivacious drama, but it has also served as a distraction. For some, it's been a fresh change of pace -- what else would América fans have to look forward to otherwise? -- while for others, it's been a reminder of just how difficult it is to attain simultaneous league and cup success.

The Mexican teams' fates will be determined after the domestic 14th round of games. Following the highly anticipated Chivas-América superclásico and Atlas' difficult visit to Santos Laguna this weekend, the Libertadores group stage will conclude after the next two weeks of action.

América needs only a draw at Chilean side Universidad Católica on April 17 to get through, as las Águilas are even with River Plate atop Group 5 with nine points apiece. Anything short of a two-goal loss, in fact, would see América through to the quarterfinals.

But bitter rivals Chivas have a tricky task before them. El Rebaño Sagrado needs to overcome difficult conditions at Bolivia's San José (elevation: 11,500 feet), but also needs help from the club that all but sunk its chances. Deportivo Cúcuta of Colombia, which beat Chivas twice in the group stage, needs to pull out at least a tie at Santos of Brazil to help Chivas out.

Chivas was supposed to have been on the other side of the picture, with a ticket to the knockout rounds of the Copa Libertadores in hand by this point. Chivas reached the semifinals in 2005 and '06, the last two times the club has participated in the South American tournament.

In fact, in '06, Chivas reached the semis in both the Copa and domestically and had set its own standards for success while competing in the Libertadores. But this year, failure to win on the road and the inability to even get a point against Cúcuta at home has all but destroyed Chivas' chances.

Ironically, Chivas' two main rivals control their own respective destinies and will likely make it past the group stage, possibly as group winners. Atlas and América fans won't shed any sympathetic tears toward their league brethren en route to the knockout rounds.

While América has long had the ability to succeed in international tournaments, Atlas was a club for whom few had any expectations. Chivas' Guadalajara rivals had the worst record in the Apertura '07 season and were all but overlooked at InterLiga '08, the Mexicans' play-in tournament for Libertadores.

Atlas, though, has done well in carrying the Mexican fan in this tournament. The team has beaten each of its group rivals, including Argentine giants Boca Juniors, who fell to los Rojinegros at the Estadio Jalisco on Tuesday by a 3-1 margin.

Former Boca and Pumas UNAM striker Bruno Marioni has been invaluable in Atlas' Copa campaign, having scored five goals in the group stage thus far. Marioni, who tallied twice against Boca in Mexico, has scored in every game except for Atlas' 3-0 loss to the defending champions in Argentina last month.

Slapped with high expectations before most league campaigns, perhaps the apparent lack of prospects for Atlas has helped the club succeed in its first participation in Libertadores since '00, when it reached the quarterfinal stage.

Meanwhile, América's only wild card this season was supposed to have been the Libertadores. The club was expected to compete for the league title, as it is every season. But fate hasn't been kind to América domestically, as las Águilas have had a forgettable season.

Through 13 weeks, América has a 2-9-2 record, the second-worst goal differential in the Mexican First Division at minus-12 and the second-fewest number of goals scored, with just nine from its lifeless attack. Cup glory, though, is still within reach: América beat River Plate 4-3 in a thrilling match at the Estadio Azteca on April 2.

Aside from Chivas' struggles -- which the club has a chance of overcoming -- the Libertadores campaign is going as planned for Mexican teams. Since '00, only Pumas (in '05) have failed to reach the knockout rounds. Assuming Atlas and América advance this time, the numbers would rise to 17 of 19 participating Mexican clubs making it beyond the group stage.

Still, whether Mexican teams to break their Libertadores drought and walk away with a Copa title remains to be seen. It will happen someday; it's just a matter of time -- and perhaps a call or two in favor of Mexican clubs for a change.

Why is everybody, from the Mexican Federation and the media, all just blaming the coach for the national team's failures? [Hugo Sánchez] didn't play the games -- the players did. Don't they deserve part of the blame also? Mexico hypes itself as having the greatest footballers in the North American continent, but doesn't place blame on the players -- only the coaches? Why? -- Leo Pérez, San Antonio

While it's true that the coaches suffer the ultimate fate, some players will ultimately carry the Olympic failure with them in the near future at least. Toluca's Santiago Fernández and Morelia's Luis Ángel Landín, for instance, will likely have the stigma of having failed to score against Haiti follow them around for a while.

Fernández, after all, had spectacular miss after spectacular miss against the Haitians while Landín was supposed to have delivered, given his success in league and his previous time with El Tri. Everyone on Mexico's Under-23 national team deserves equal blame, but ultimately, it's the coach who must own up for it -- that much comes with the territory.

I think Sánchez's failure as coach of El Tri just goes to show that just because somebody was a great player, they may not have the X's and O's ability or skill to motivate players. For every Cruyff or Rijkaard, there is a Platini, Giresse or Tigana -- great players all, but just not good coaches. -- Steve Adams, New Hope, Minn.

Certainly, Sánchez is the greatest player Mexico has ever produced -- nobody questions that. One of the more interesting parts of the fallout of his firing will be how his playing days are remembered now that his coaching tenure with El Tri was an unmitigated failure. Perhaps the public will be able to easily separate Sánchez, the Real Madrid star, from Sánchez, the coach who didn't know the way to Beijing.

I didn't like [Ricardo] Lavolpe all that much either, but what Hugo did to him while he was the coach should be considered anti-Mexican. Mexico is really good, but they truly believe that they are better than they really are. That's their major problem, and everybody should thank Hugo for that, because he sold the idea that Mexico should be considered a world elite team, which is so unrealistic. What Hugo did to Lavolpe about the foreign-born players -- and then himself calling them -- was one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen in major sports. -- Ben Orellana, Houston

A very good point. Results speak for themselves, but public sentiment for Sánchez seemed to wane when he called up Antonio "Zinha" Naelson to the national team. Zinha involuntarily sparked a national outrage when Lavolpe called him into the national team during his tenure, compounded only by the former manager's inclusion of Guillermo Franco.

Sánchez was vicious in his critiques of each call-up, yet played his final game, a 2-1 win over Ghana on March 26, with both of them on the field. Perhaps nothing else can more vividly express just how much of a windbag Sánchez really is than that hypocritical act.

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