A vastly different Chivas to face Guardiola
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola knows a thing or two about Mexican soccer, certainly more than most European managers.
Guardiola played for Dorados de Sinaloa in 2006 under Juan Manuel Lillo and declared himself an avid fan of El Tri's style earlier this month. He reserved particular praise in one interview for former Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe, who was fired from Chivas in April -- less than a month after he took over -- for alleged inappropriate behavior toward a female member of staff at the club.
Asked earlier this month about Thursday's Bayern Munich game in New Jersey against Chivas, Guardiola said he knew Chivas "very well" because of the two times Barcelona played Chivas when he was coach of the Catalan team.
But despite his general knowledge of soccer this side of the Atlantic, if Guardiola thinks this Chivas side is anything like the 2008 version -- when Barcelona won 5-2, with Javier Hernandez netting for Chivas -- or the 2011 side, which overcame Barcelona 4-1 thanks to two brilliant goals from Marco Fabian, he'll be in for a surprise.
Of the 21 players then-coach Jose Luis Real fielded during the 90 minutes on Aug. 3, 2011, only five are currently at the club. Indeed, all of Chivas' 21 that day -- with the exception of Omar Arellano -- came through the club's youth system. No wonder Guardiola, the fervent believer in developing young talent, was impressed as his side was steamrolled by Chivas' homegrown talent.
But times always seem to be changing at Chivas. Since that match, Guardiola's mentor, Johan Cruyff, La Volpe, Dennis te Kloese, Real and a host of others have come and gone from the club that plays only with Mexican players. There have been a total of nine coaching changes in that time.
And the differences between Thursday's game and the last time Guardiola saw Chivas up close neatly emphasizes the way the Liga MX side has embarked on an overhaul of the entire institution over the past 18 months. Experience has been brought in to stabilize a creaking ship in a bid to stem the flow of poor results that has led them into relegation danger.
Omar Bravo, Carlos Salcido, Gerardo Rodriguez, Jair Pereira, Aldo de Nigris, Israel Castro and Fernando Arce were signed to stave off relegation and -- ideally -- become a side that can challenge in the later stages of the Liga MX playoffs. The average age of the outfield players in the team's 1-1 draw in the Apertura opener against Chiapas was 30.8 years.
But owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes -- reinvigorated by incoming operating director Rafael Puente Jr. -- have also revamped the youth side of the club, by recently hiring former Barcelona youth director Albert Benaiges as the new director of sports development. Benaiges helped deliver the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta to the club, something that greatly benefitted Guardiola during his incredibly successful stint in charge of Los Cules.
It's a pretty simple plan that makes sense: shore up the first team to make sure it is still in the Liga MX, while Benaiges works his magic at the youth level to get top players breaking through. However, as always in Vergara's reign in charge of the club, the major doubt is whether the new project will be given time.
How long will current manager Carlos Bustos last if the results go badly? And what if Puente and/or sporting director Francisco "Paco" Palencia fall out or disagree with Vergara? If the next Messi or Iniesta doesn't show up at Chivas in the next year, will some pressure then be exerted on Benaiges?
For now, though, the game against Guardiola's Bayern and the one against AC Milan next Wednesday offer welcome diversion and the chance for Chivas to promote themselves in other corners of the world, forgetting the lingering doubt back home.
-Chivas will have a full squad available against Bayern. The majority traveled on Tuesday, with 11 other players and Bustos making the trip on Wednesday morning, following the team's 3-1 win over sister club Coras de Tepic in the first round of matches in the Copa MX.
-Sergio Napoles played well and netted twice against Coras, with Carlos Fierro getting a long overdue goal, as well. Both could be edging their way to first-team starts sooner rather than later if they continue that kind of form in the cup. The team was made up mainly of youngsters including Jorge "Chaton" Enriquez and it also marked the return of Luis Michel in goal. The former No. 1 spent the Clausura season on loan at Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa.
Tom Marshall has been based in Guadalajara since 2008 and has written about Mexican football ever since. Find him on Twitter @MexicoWorldCup.