Expectations high for Liga MX clubs in CONCACAF Champions League
Expectations are unsurprisingly high for the Liga MX teams involved in this year's CONCACAF Champions League tournament. Since 2006, no club outside of Mexico's first division has won top honors in the CONCACAF competition. Whether it be in the "Champions Cup" or "Champions League" era, a Liga MX team always seems to finish with the title in hand.
This year, the responsibility of maintaining that streak from 2006 lies in the hands (and feet) of four Liga MX squads: Club America, Chivas, Tijuana and Tigres. With the knockout round of the competition set to start this week, here's everything you need to know about Mexico's representatives in the 2018 tournament.
Current Liga MX position and record: 1st place, 4-4-0 (W-D-L)
Strength: Attacking firepower. Whether it be Henry Martin, Oribe Peralta, Jeremy Menez or a few others, there's no lack of goal-scoring talent in this roster. Las Aguilas have a scary amount of depth in the squad, which means that manager Miguel "Piojo" Herrera should still be able to go far in the tournament while utilizing impressive backups like Diego Lainez or Andres Ibarguen.
Weakness: Club America has shown little-to-no weaknesses in their undefeated start to the year. That said, it's fair to bring up the away form. Although Herrera's men have earned one-sided results at the Estadio Azteca, they have yet to deliver the same kind of bravado away from their home ground. Looking at their four away games, Las Aguilas have clinched one narrow win and three low-scoring draws.
This should be good news for Champions League rivals that will be desperate to find an Achilles' heel in one of the title favorites.
Key player: Martin. The 25-year-old Mexican has been a revelation with his five goals and two assists for Club America. Following an appearance on the bench for Las Aguilas last weekend, the striker looks set for a starting role in the upcoming clash against Costa Rican giants Saprissa.
Round of 16 opponent: Saprissa (Costa Rica). Away leg on Feb 21st, home leg on Feb 28th.
Current Liga MX position and record: 16th place, 1-3-4 (W-D-L)
Strength: Despite the fact that it hasn't led to many goals this season, Chivas are a very possession-heavy squad. So far in the 2018 Clausura, only Tigres have had more possession of the ball than the Guadalajara club. Against non-Liga MX rivals, manager Matias Almeyda might have a little bit more luck on his side in the Champions League tournament.
Weakness: Where to begin? The team is weak in the air and has proven to be constantly vulnerable on the counter. Defensively, Almeyda has struggled to rely on either healthy or competent players in the center of his backline. With league play now set to overlap, Chivas might be a defensive disaster waiting to happen.
Key player: Rodolfo Pizarro. The attack-minded midfielder has been a bright light in a miserable run of form for Chivas during the last several months. With plenty of energy and an eye for goal, the vital playmaker is one that Almeyda will have to rely on in tricky matches.
Round of 16 opponent: Cibao (Dominican Republic). Away leg on Feb 22nd, home leg on Feb 28th.
Current Liga MX position and record: 8th place, 3-3-2 (W-D-L)
Strength: Defense. After eight games in the Liga MX season, Xolos have only allowed five goals in the tournament. Thanks to the talents of goalkeeper Gibran Lajud, and the incorporation of an imposing figure like Pablo Aguilar, several opponents have either been left frustrated or goalless against Tijuana in 2018.
Weakness: Don't let last week's 4-1 win over Pumas fool you, manager Diego Cocca still has plenty of questions he needs to answer regarding the team's lack of goals. Due to injury problems for star striker Gustavo Bou, Xolos have only scored seven times in eight games in the Clausura. Although newcomer Mateus Goncalves has recently emerged as an intriguing source of goals, he still has plenty to prove.
Key player: Ignacio Malcorra. The quick and crafty Argentine is the engine in Tijuana's midfield. Whether it be through a dangerous run or a deadly cross, the 30-year-old is one who will eventually earn a start if the team makes its way to at least the quarter or semi-final stage.
Round of 16 opponent: Motagua (Honduras). Away leg on Feb 21st, home leg on Feb 27th.
Current Liga MX position and record: 10th place, 3-3-2 (W-D-L)
Strength: Depth in the roster. On paper, Tigres have the most powerful squad in the Champions League. Fringe options such as Jurgen Damm and Lucas Zelarayan would easily be star players in a number of other North American clubs.
Weakness: The current "preseason" form. As seen in the two questionable losses to Puebla and Pumas and their current place in table of 10th, Tigres have yet to truly find their momentum. With seven consecutive appearances in the Liga MX playoffs, it's not surprising that manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti doesn't truly flex his muscle until near the end of the regular season.
Champions League opponents will keep their fingers crossed that Ferretti once again slips up like he did earlier this year against Puebla and Pumas.
Key player: The easy answer here is Andre-Pierre Gignac. Although he won't be available for the first leg against Herediano this week, the powerful French striker will easily be a figure to keep an eye on later on in the tournament. Assuming that Tigres at least qualify for the semifinals, which is a safe bet, Gignac has the talent and pedigree to be the team's top goal scorer.
Round of 16 opponent: Herediano (Costa Rica). Away leg on Feb 20th, home leg on Feb 27th.
Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @cesarhfutbol.