Monterrey and Tigres were the best two teams in the Liga MX Apertura, and now the city rivals will meet in a two-legged final to crown the Mexican champion in a must-see event.
The first leg of Liga MX’s Apertura final is this Thursday and there's already one big winner: The Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. Top-seeded Monterrey will take on second-seeded Tigres UANL in the first Clasico Regio championship, and it's one deserving of the final spotlight.
Tigres breezed through the semifinals, as Ricardo Ferretti’s squad destroyed Miguel Herrera’s America 4-0 in two legs. Monterrey, meanwhile, went through a similar journey, as Los Rayados overcame Morelia 1-0 in the first leg before running away with it in the second to win 5-0 on aggregate.
Aside from the geographical proximity, it’s worth noting that this final is also a clear indication that both these teams are on a different level from anyone else. In the last seven years, both teams have reached 18 finals: 10 in Liga MX, five in CONCACAF Champions League, two in Copa MX and one in Copa Libertadores.
Including the playoffs, Monterrey’s entire Apertura campaign has been magnificent, one in which Antonio Mohamed’s team has scored 40 goals and only conceded 14. Los Rayados have one of the most expensive, talented squads on the continent, featuring an attacking arsenal that includes Aviles Hurtado (the league’s top scorer and main candidate for MVP), Dorlan Pabon and Rogelio Funes Mori. With the help of other talented players such as Uruguayan midfielder Carlos Sanchez and dual U.S.-Mexican rising star midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, Monterrey can punish anyone from anywhere on the pitch. Factor in a talented goalkeeper like Hugo Gonzalez, and it becomes extremely difficult to find a weakness in the squad.
The interesting factor about Monterrey, however, is that if you’re an opposing coach analyzing Monterrey, you’ll be very surprised to discover that there are no real groundbreaking tactics. There is no tiki-taka or beautiful, possession-based football. Mohamed’s priority, above all else, wants his team to cause havoc and rely on physical prowess as opposed to creating a system that’s easy on the eyes.
In fact, for all their stealth, Los Rayados are actually very straightforward. They're organized at the back, direct in possession and love to counter. That’s it. There really is no secret sauce, and it’s consistent-no-bells-or-whistles football. In many ways, they are somewhat similar to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City, where the focus was only on suffocating the opposition and capitalizing on mistakes–by whatever means necessary.
Throughout the regular season, Monterrey averaged less than 40% possession, but what made the team so effective was what it did when it had the ball. For Mohamed, having the ball means nothing if you can’t turn possession into opportunity, so control, therefore, is not about possession but rather physical and mental domination.
As for Tigres, the worrying aspect for its opponents is that the team’s performance in the regular season wasn’t even that impressive. In fact, it seemed at times that Ferretti’s squad was giving 60% effort, knowing all it had to do was get into the Liguilla.
It took Tigres's matchup against America to really wake the club up.
In the semifinals, Tigres showed just how good it can be. In the second leg, America (losing 1-0 after the first leg) was clinging on, and even held for an hour until the tired legs just couldn’t maintain a possessed Enner Valencia, who scored twice that evening. In the end, exhaustion turned into frustration and America ended the match with nine men. The Ecuadorian was just too much for the visitors.
Valencia, who arrived from West Ham (after a loan spell at Everton) in the summer, has been fantastic, scoring 11 goals during the Apertura. Aside from his goals, however, it’s his devastating pace and ability to switch from left to right that makes him such a threat and a great compliment next to Andre-Pierre Gignac.
Alongside the support of Eduardo Vargas and Javier Aquino, Ferretti’s team is spoiled with talent and comes into this final with plenty of momentum.
This squad is so deep that Jurgen Damm, a national team player for Mexico and a Juan Carlos Osorio favorite, can’t get into the starting XI
Having said all that, it’s Monterrey that is the favorite in this final, but it mainly depends on Hurtado’s availability. The Colombian was injured in the first leg of the semifinal against Morelia, but reports suggest he was fit to start in the return leg, just Mohamed decided to save him. If he is 100%, then that’s another headache for Tigres.
The other issue for Ferretti’s team is the recent underwhelming performance of Gignac. The Frenchman, as good as he is, has not been as devastating as in previous seasons, and Tigres will need him to get back to his best for Thursday's first leg and Sunday's finale.
The most important factor, however, is that the second leg is at Monterrey’s stadium, Estadio BBVA Bancomer, and at home, Monterrey is undefeated. In fact, during the regular season, Rayados ended with an 8-0-1 record. Tigres need to be at their best to change this trend to avoid losing in yet another final after falling to Chivas in the 2017 Clausura.
No matter the outcome, one thing is abundantly clear. This is the final Liga MX deserves.