If Mexico´s first division used the standard European league system, Santos Laguna would already have lifted the cup and its players would be putting their feet up on different beaches all over the world, proudly displaying their medals.
But this is Mexico and despite their spell at the top of the Mexican game, los Guerreros are trophy-less since the Clausura 2008 after losing five finals in the last two years.
During that time, a rivalry has developed between Santos Laguna and Monterrey, fueled by proximity and Santos´ desperation to give the narco-affected city of Torreón a trophy during its dark time and the fact that Monterrey has twice stopped them doing just that.
The first occasion was the Apertura 2010, when Santos took a slender 3-2 lead into the second leg in Monterrey, only to find Chilean striker Humberto Suazo in scintillating form. Monterrey took the game 3-0, with Suazo scoring twice.
The most recent was the CONCACAF Champions League in April. Monterrey won 2-0 at home and Santos won the return leg 2-1, indicating just how important this Thursday´s first leg in Monterrey will be if Santos are to win the tournament.
“We know los Rayados are a rival that we can damage, we just have to be careful with their strikeforce and play a good first leg,” said Santos striker Oribe Peralta after the semifinal against Tigres. “In the return leg, we know we can be crowned here (in Torreón).”
Peralta´s reference to Monterrey´s attack, necessarily means mentioning Suazo, who has hit top form after a slow start to the season.
The Chilean has six goals in the two domestic finals he has participated in since arriving in Mexico. He can and has turned games with one moment of magic.
For Santos, Peralta is in the form of his life and scored two goals in the last five minutes of the semifinal against Tigres to put his team into the final. His Manchester City-like comeback would´ve also given the whole squad a belief that this is their year.
The series is an authentic playoff cup final, the first time since 2000 that the top two finishers in the regular season have made it to the final. It is also a battle between the regular season´s top two goalscoring sides.
Few would argue that these two are not the best two teams in Mexico and the CONCACAF region.
With little between them on paper, Monterrey goes into the series as slight favorites due to the fact Monterrey coach Victor Manuel Vucetich has not lost in 12 finals in his coaching career and Santos´ recent record in finals is dismal.
“It is a team that has been hit hard by so many lost finals,” admitted local Torreón-born Peralta. “But we have a lot of desire to defeat whichever rival is put in front of us.”
For Monterrey, striker Aldo de Nigris is confident that, guided by the Midas touch of Vucetich, his team can win its fifth title.
“The team has been playing together a long time and has good experience of playing in finals,” he said. “It must be for something that Victor Manuel Vucetich has won so many finals.”
Both teams have been playing regularly twice a week since the start of the season and fatigue could be a factor. Goals should flow, even if Santos can be expected to sit back in the first leg in Monterrey.
Neither side has any injury concerns or suspensions going into the game.
First leg: Thursday, May 17 10 p.m. ET - Telefutura
Return: Sunday, May 20 9 p.m. ET - Telefutura
-Monterrey has four titles compared to Santos Laguna´s three
-Monterrey is undefeated in its last five games, Santos in its last seven
-In a head-to-head over the last five games between the two: Monterrey won two, Santos once, with two ties
-Santos Laguna finished the regular season in first position, four points ahead of second-placed Monterrey
-The average age of the likely starting eleven for Santos is 28.5 years, Monterrey´s is 27.2.
The CONCACAF Champions League Subplot
Both Santos and Monterrey are already automatically qualified for next season´s CCL, but the outcome of the final will dictate whether Chivas or America get Mexico´s last place.
If Santos Laguna win, Chivas enter the continental competition. A Monterrey victory means America go into the draw.
Why? Mexico has four CCL places:
M1 – Apertura 2011 Champion (Tigres)
M2 –Clausura 2012 Champion (Not yet known)
M3 – Apertura 2011 Runner-up (Santos)
M4 – Clausura 2012 Runner-up (Not yet known)
To cut a long story short, if Santos win, they take the M2 spot, leaving M3 to the highest finisher in the regular season in the Apertura 2011 – Chivas.
If Monterrey wins, it gets M2, Santos stay in M3 and M4 goes to the highest finisher in the Clausura not already qualified for the CCL – America.
The repercussions are big for summer spending, with both Chivas and America likely to change transfer policy depending on whether they are in the competition.
by Tom Marshall (@MexicoWorldCup)
tom.marshall.mex (at) gmail.com
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