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 By Tom Marshall

Liga MX Clausura playoffs set with Monterrey, Tigres early title favourites

Pumas' resurgence adds more intrigue to the latest edition of the Clasico Capitalino.
The headline match-up of the playoffs is undoubtedly Club America against Pumas.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The 2018 Clausura Liga MX playoffs are set following the conclusion of the regular season this weekend.

Here's what you need to know:

1. Clasico Capitalino headlines the playoffs

The headline match-up of the playoffs is undoubtedly Club America (second in regular season table) against Pumas (seventh) in another edition of the Clasico Capitalino.

America ended what felt at times like an inconsistent regular behind only Toluca and will go into the quarterfinal against Pumas as favorite after defeating Santos Laguna 1-0 on Saturday. The game saw the return of French forward Jeremy Menez, who scored the winner from the penalty spot, although center-back Emanuel Aguilera left the field with injuries to both his knee and ankle and will miss "two to three weeks" according to the club.

His absence could open the door to Edson Alvarez to strengthen his claim for a place in Russia 2018 during the liguilla.

Pumas held on to tie 1-1 against Queretaro at home on Sunday, although it wasn't an altogether convincing display leading into the playoffs.

Regular season leader Toluca fell 1-0 on Friday to Tijuana, ending a nine-match winning streak. Los Diablos Rojos will face Morelia -- who drew 2-2 with Necaxa on Friday -- in the liguilla. It's a good draw for Toluca, who will be favorite against a Morelia side without a win in its last three matches.

Third-placed Monterrey tied 2-2 against Tigres in Estadio Universitario in the Clasico Regio on Saturday and will play Club Tijuana in the Clausura quarterfinals. It was an entertaining match, although Monterrey will be disappointed not to have finished Tigres off after the home side had Alberto Acosta sent off just before half-time.

The final match-up is Santos Laguna against Tigres. Los Guerreros boast the season's top scorer in Djaniny (14 goals), but have lost their last three games and will have wanted to avoid the reigning champions in the quarters.

2. Monterrey, Tigres lead the title hunt

Toluca finished the regular season seven points clear of America and Monterrey and eight clear of Tigres. Nevertheless, the cliche that the postseason is a new tournament does have some truth to it.

Tigres have been the dominant side in Liga MX in recent years and, as the 2017 title holders, you'd have to put them as the team to beat in the playoffs, especially with Andre-Pierre Gignac hitting form. Behind them, local rival and last season's runner-up Monterrey will be a difficult opponent; Club America is a team filled with quality and Toluca has obviously found consistency. It would be a surprise if the champion came from outside those four teams.

Incidentally, the Soccer Power Index has Monterrey as favorite (22 percent chance of lifting the trophy), followed by Toluca (19 percent), Club America (17 percent), Tigres (16 percent), Santos Laguna (11 percent), Morelia (3 percent) and Pumas (3 percent).

3. Pachuca, Chivas the big disappointments

With the regular season over, there will be some soul-searching going on for the 10 teams not involved in the playoffs, including at some of Mexico's biggest clubs.

CONCACAF Champions League winners Chivas lost 2-0 to Leon at home on Saturday to end the Clausura in 17th position. The Guadalajara team hasn't won a league game in Estadio Chivas since last October and coach Matias Almeyda made it abundantly clear after the game that the owners have to go out and bring in quality new signings if they are to compete next season.

Pachuca would've qualified for the playoffs with a win over Atlas, but Los Tuzos could only draw 1-1. That means the club hasn't reached the liguilla in three seasons. For a club with the ambition, resources and quality of Pachuca that just isn't good enough and coach Diego Alonso's position will be under review.

Of the other teams to disappoint, Cruz Azul and Leon will have been particularly disappointed not to make the postseason.

4. Liga promotion/relegation situation a mess

Cafetaleros de Tapachula won the Ascenso MX 2018 Clausura title on Sunday, overcoming Leones Negros 3-2 on aggregate -- the teams drew 2-2 in front of over 50,000 in Estadio Jalisco in the second leg.

In theory, Tapachula should play Alebrijes de Oaxaca for the right to win promotion, but Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla confirmed after the final that neither club will be eligible for promotion, indicating that a financial prize of 120 million pesos (close to $6.5 million USD) will instead be on offer.

The reason is that neither institution meets the eligibility requirements Liga MX rules spell out for promotion. Recently "relegated" Lobos BUAP will have the opportunity to pay the same amount to remain in Liga MX. If not, there will be 17 teams in the division next season, confirmed Bonilla.

If that sounds a little confusing, it is because it is a messy situation. The league wants to expand to have 20 teams with fit and proper owners, no governmental involved and with quality facilities. The problem is that how that is supposed to happen hasn't yet been adequately explained.

At present, Mexico's second division is a sham and a restructuring of the system is urgently required. The one positive is that Liga MX and club owners are very aware of the problem and closing in on a solution, which could be a more closed pro/rel system.

5. Marquez, national team players face nervous wait

Rafa Marquez bowed out of club football with a full 90 minutes against Pachuca on Saturday. Now the wait is on to see if his name will be on Mexico's preliminary 35-player squad list for Russia 2018.

The list is due to be announced on May 14, meaning that Marquez may well have a few days off, go back to training at Atlas and then be ready to travel to be with the national team, if he is required.

The doubt over Marquez's involvement centers on whether he has the green light from the Mexican federation after the U.S. Treasury alleged that the former Barcelona player had links to a drug trafficking organization.

Others in the same situation include Jesus Corona, Rodolfo Pizarro, Oswaldo Alanis -- who is in Europe and looks set to sign for Getafe -- Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez, Elias Hernandez, and Rodolfo Cota.

This weekend was also the end of long-time El Tri opponent Landon Donovan's season with Leon. The former U.S. international bowed out by coming on for the final 15 minutes of the game against Chivas, although the final tally of 111 minutes in Liga MX play all season is well below what Donovan would've hoped for.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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