Why Santos Laguna's improbable run to the Clausura final can continue vs. America
MEXICO CITY -- There are two teams from the northern part of Mexico still vying to take home the Clausura 2018 title. They're just not who most people were expecting.
Both Monterrey teams and Apertura 2017 finalists in December, Tigres and Rayados, were stunningly eliminated in the liguilla quarterfinals. The former were knocked off by Santos Laguna, a team that had started off hot in the regular season only to cool off towards the end -- a cardinal sin for odds makers in Mexico's unpredictable Liga MX.
"We were eliminated by a team that played with heart, and we never had it," expressed Tigres manager Ricardo Ferretti after Sunday's 2-0 loss at the Estadio Corona.
Indeed, the epitome of Santos wanting it more was the team's second goal, when an injured Djaniny Tavares struck a ball past Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman. The goal was part effort from Tavares, part blunder from Guzman, who botched the shot. However, the Monterrey squad still had 20 minutes after Tavares' goal to score one goal -- even having the luxury to concede another and still need to score just once and go through to the next round.
They never did.
Now, Santos Laguna marches on to the tournament's semifinals, where it faces another tough task. Club America, winner of 12 Liga MX league titles, is its next target, a team who beat Santos a fortnight ago in Mexico City, and in the process ripped away any chance of a second-place finish for the Torreon-based club and thus, better seeding in the playoffs.
The stakes are different this time around, with a place in the Clausura final up for grabs. And though Santos Laguna will face a highly motivated Club America (another title would put it above rival Chivas in the historical tally), there are reasons to believe Santos' improbable run can continue beyond beating a seemingly uninspired Tigres team, according to its manager.
Defender Nestor Araujo could potentially come back into the fold for the semifinals. The Mexico international has been out since sustaining a scary injury during a friendly against Croatia in March. Without Araujo, Santos' defense had been forced to make several adjustments, conceding 13 goals in the eight regular-season, postseason and Copa MX matches the team has faced without the former Cruz Azul youth product.
Tavares, who was taken off after scoring the deciding goal against Tigres, is also expected to play against the Mexico City giant this week after tests ruled out a long-term injury. During the Clausura, the Cape Verde international scored 14 goals, his best-ever tally in Mexico. In Tavares' absence through injury this season, Argentina's Julio Furch picked up the slack with five key goals as well.
On the flip side, Uruguay international and Santos forward Jonathan Rodriguez will be out for the first leg -- the result of a red card the player drew in the first half of last Sunday's match against Tigres. That means Santos will be without one of its starters up front in Torreon, with another, Tavares, potentially not at full fitness for the first game of the series.
After successfully holding Tigres' powerful attack in check throughout most of the two-game quarterfinal, Santos Laguna will face a similar challenge against the likes France's Jeremy Menez, and Colombia's Mateus Uribe.
Following a difficult stretch involving injuries and an adjustment period, Menez and Uribe have been virtually unstoppable of late. Since Menez struck a decisive penalty in the 83rd minute on April 28 against Santos Laguna, he and Uribe have combined for six of the club's past seven goals.
While the 31-year-old Menez is a proven commodity who has played for the likes of AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, Uribe, at 27 years of age, is only just wrapping up his first year away from his native Colombia. The impressive performances have garnered attention not just from giants on this side of the continent, but also from European teams like Real Madrid.
Beyond that pair, Santos will also have to deal with players like Andres Ibarguen, Renato Ibarra and Mexico international Oribe Peralta, not to mention Club America's wildcard, the 17-year-old Diego Lainez, who has become a popular choice for coach Miguel Herrera to come off the bench and provide a change of pace in attack.
Although it can be said Club America, like Tigres before it, is favorite as it faces off against Santos Laguna, the reality is the series between both teams looks to be the more entertaining of the two semifinals being played this week.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.