The time has come. The match-up has been set, and oh what a match-up we have.
The final of the 2017 Clausura in Liga MX sees two teams carrying rather dramatic and historically significant narratives into the closing chapter of this season.
Club de Fútbol Tigres de la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León and Club Deportivo Guadalajara, better known by their kingdom nicknames of Tigres and Chivas, both come into this marquee affair with something to prove to the masses.
Tigres, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti’s gold and blue clad side from Monterrey, could very well cement their place among the great Mexican teams of decades past. Having already won two of the last three Liga MX championships, Tigres have a massive opportunity to etch the word dynasty in stone by defeating their opponents from Jalisco.
Chivas, the Guadalajara giants lead by charismatic Argentine gaffer Matias Almeyda, have a chance to lift their first league championship trophy since 2006.
For a club very much seen as “Mexico’s team”, the league title drought of nearly eleven years has been unacceptable for millions of dedicated fans and most certainly for owner Jorge Vergara, the polarizing figure who just a couple of years ago saw his culturally iconic club mired in a relegation scrap while he himself was in the midst of an unsavory divorce from his then wife and former Chivas co-owner Angelica Fuentes, an often vilified character at the Estadio Omnilife.
It was right around that time, September of 2015 to be exact, when a man named Matias Almeyda rolled into town. Youthful by managerial standards, the former River Plate and Inter Milan midfielder has brought a model of consistency to Chivas, helping to guide the club not only out of the relegation zone, but back to the front pages for all the right reasons.
With the deeper meaning in play, Almeyda is now 180 minutes from cementing his legacy among the most highly regarded coaching names in club history at the ripe young age of 43.
Tigres slumped through the majority of the regular season in Liga MX, getting hot at precisely the right time and proceeding to go on an absolute tear, sprinting into the postseason as the fiercest seven seed imaginable. Loaded on the pitch, and on the bench, with more firepower than most teams could ever dream of, the tenacious Tigres attack has been matched by an impressive defensive record of late.
In four playoff matches, Tigres have outscored their opponents 10-1. Those four matches were also against the top two seeded teams in the liguilla, their bitter local rivals Los Rayados of Monterrey in the first round and the top-seeded Xolos of Club Tijuana in the semi-finals, the lone goal conceded coming in a 4-1 romp of Monterrey in the liguilla opener.
Chivas had a quality season overall, a campaign that already includes a Copa MX title (their second under Almeyda) and a third place regular season finish. The playoffs however have seen Chivas sneak their way past Atlas and Toluca, 1-1 and 2-2 aggregate scorelines sending Los Rojiblancos through to the final, each time aided by the higher seed tiebreaker. They will have no such aid in the final.
Hampered by some key injuries, Chivas are also faced with the less than flattering fact that one of their most talented attacking players, 26 year-old forward Alan Pulido, hasn’t scored a goal in nine matches.
On a sheer spectator level in both Mexico and the United States, both ends of the two-legged tie very much have the potential to top the all-time television viewership list for Liga MX matches.
As kickoff of Thursday’s first leg at the Estadio Universitario approaches, and the atmosphere at ‘El Volcan’ inches nearer to complete eruption, three questions are on my mind.
First off, is this Tigres side that is going for their third title in four semester seasons while featuring the likes of French star forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, Chilean striker and El Tri nemesis Eduardo Vargas (who despite his enormous talent has spent large portions of the season on the bench), Mexican international midfielder Javier Aquino, Argentine midfield maestro Ismael Sosa, Argentine goalkeeper and 2016 Apertura Final hero Nahuel Guzman and so many more high profile names, the best squad ever assembled in Liga MX history?
Second, what is the bigger story line going into this final, the dynasty aspirations of Tuca and Tigres, or the return to the grandest stage for an historic powerhouse club that has long embodied the Mexican footballing spirit, all while sputtering rather miserably for the past decade?
Lastly, and most importantly, who’s gonna win this thing, and why?
For answers to all of these questions, I spoke with members of the #LigaMXeng scene, writers, broadcasters, and Mexican Soccer experts, receiving some varying opinions and unique outlooks on this splendid occasion and what it could all mean down the line. Here’s what they had to say.
Nayib Morán, ESPN FC (Twitter: @NayibMoran)
“Historically speaking, I think this Tigres team will leave a mark just like Cruz Azul’s squad did in the 1970s, Chivas’ in the 1950s, and America’s in the 1980s. Those are teams that took the spotlight away from the rest, as Tigres are definitely doing nowadays.”
“The bigger story… I believe it’s Tigres’ dynasty or “golden era” as I like calling it; it’s great to see a club like Tigres make the big transfer moves and have a solid plan to become one of the most important clubs in the Mexican game.”
“The winner? I’ve got Tigres. A lot of miracles will have to take place for Chivas to win this Clausura title.”
Amelia Lopez, Fut Mex Nation (Twitter: @AztecaAmeliaaa)
“Tigres are definitely one of the best teams I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if I can say “all-time”, but I can tell you that in these playoffs, they’ve absolutely dominated.”
“As far as the narratives go, I definitely feel the Chivas story is bigger. Everyone loves a good redemption tale and this would in many ways be the ultimate redemption. When you couple that with the powerhouse that is Tigres, if Chivas manage to take the final away from them, it would be absolutely incredible.”
“For a winner though, I still gotta say Tigres. There is too much intelligence and strength on the team that Chivas hasn’t leveled to in their own team’s performances. Chivas could play two very good games but the offense of Tigres most likely will be too much to handle.”
Eric Gomez, ESPN FC (Twitter: @EricGomez86)
“Historically, I think this Tigres team is definitely up there, but I’d still rank it a shade below the 94-95 América team with players like Biyik, Bwalya and del Olmo. But Tigres is a fantastic team that is dominating this era for a reason. They’ve spent big, but also wisely for the most part and have the most electrifying player in the league in Gignac.”
“The biggest story is always the biggest team. Chivas can potentially tie Club America with 12 league titles and they’re on the cusp of a league and cup double which is kind of unprecedented in recent times. Tigres is a great team, but they have a regional fanbase while Chivas is one of the few teams that transcends Mexican borders.”
“All signs point to Tigres for the win, but even they have their weaknesses. Especially against big teams. They had to go to penalty kicks at home last season to beat a seriously depleted America team. This season I feel like Chivas is strangely in a much better position than their rivals. I think they take it. I think Chivas wins it all.”
Brenda Alvarado, La Afición – Milenio TV (Twitter: @Brendalvarado94)