Gignac, Clasicos, U.S. internationals: Liga MX playoff storylines to follow
It's Liga MX playoff time! Only three teams from the 2016 Apertura Liguilla have made the 2017 Clausura playoffs: Tigres, Club Tijuana and Chivas. The map has changed and left out sides like America, Pumas and Pachuca. Two clasicos headline the quarterfinals this time around: the Clasico Regio and Clasico Tapatio.
Here are five storylines to follow in the coming days:
Will Monterrey repeat Liguilla success against Tigres?
Of the four quarterfinal ties, the Clasico Regio will generate the most attention, mainly because the clubs count on two of the richest squads Liga MX has ever seen. Monterrey will arrive at Tigres' El Volcan after suffering two consecutive losses to close out the season. Antonio "Turco" Mohamed believes the results happened because his team fell into a relaxing spell after securing a playoff spot in Week 15, but Rayados have won just two of their past seven games. Tigres, meanwhile, have won four of their past five. Their only loss? A 1-0 Clasico Regio defeat.
Recent history suggests Monterrey has the advantage, as it eliminated Tigres in the 2003 Clausura semifinals, 2005 Apertura semifinals, 2013 Clausura quarterfinals and 2016 Clausura quarterfinals. But times are different, especially considering Tigres are living their golden era right now.
Can Almeyda secure his first playoff win with Chivas?
No one can deny that Matias Almeyda has transformed Chivas into a dynamic team that has a precise idea of how to play an attractive style of football, one that both their faithful fans and neutral spectators enjoy watching every time they take the pitch. Since his arrival, the club has celebrated two Copa MX championships, but the league title continues to be the obsession; Chivas haven't won a Liga MX trophy since 2006.
Liguilla clasicos seem to be chasing Almeyda. After two consecutive quarterfinal losses to America, the boss now has the challenge of beating Atlas in the Clasico Tapatio in order to reach the semis. But in order to accomplish this goal, a couple of firsts will have to occur: With Almeyda in charge, Chivas have yet to win a Liguilla game, and El Rebano Sagrado has not scored a playoff goal at Estadio Chivas.
Almeyda will need players like Angel Zaldivar and Rodolfo Pizarro to be healthy so they can help Chivas reach their first semifinal during his tenure at the club.
Who of Corona, Arriola or Villafana will shine brightest?
In 14 Liga MX starts for Tijuana this season, Joe Corona has scored two goals and contributed two assists. In 13 starts for the same club, Paul Arriola has scored two goals and dished out three assists. Jorge Villafana did not get his first start with Santos Laguna until Week 10, but since then he has locked down the left-back position; With Villafana in the XI, Los Guerreros haven't lost a game.
Of the three U.S. internationals, Corona already knows what it takes to lift a Liga MX trophy. He did it with Mohamed's Xolos in the 2012 Apertura, but that does not take the spotlight away from Villafana and Arriola, both of whom have seized the moment every time they've been given starting opportunities.
Without a doubt, if Xolos and/or Santos are to go far in the Liguilla, Villafana, Corona and Arriola will play important roles.
How will Tijuana fair before Herrera's likely departure?
Miguel "Piojo" Herrera is the front-runner to take over America's managerial post this summer following Ricardo La Volpe's departure. It has been a rumor that has been talked about for the past two months and there is reason to think it could end up distracting Tijuana, as the club eyes its second Liga MX title.
Last season Xolos arrived to the Liguilla in top spot, but were eliminated by eighth-seeded Leon. It can be said that although Herrera's departure to America appears to be all but certain, his camaraderie at Xolos is still on full display.
Herrera's Xolos are more dynamic and versatile than last season, when the focal point in attack was striker Dayro Moreno. This time around, he has more attacking options who offer different advantages on the pitch. Herrera knows all eyes are on him and if he's able to arrive to America after winning the Liga MX title with Tijuana, he will enter the training grounds as a king.
Will Gignac transform into Mr. Liguilla once more?
Last season, Andre-Pierre Gignac scored six goals in six Liguilla games. He was unstoppable and his great scoring run helped Tigres lift their fifth Liga MX title.
But his performances in Clasico Regios have not been mesmerizing. He has only scored once in the six clasicos he has played in. There is no doubt that his attacking contributions, whether as the goal scorer or with his assists, will be crucial for Tigres' winning aspirations.
Tigres' campaign has been irregular, but as manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti stated on Monday, they reached the playoffs, and now the season feels like a totally new one. Monterrey defenders Cesar Montes and Jose Maria Basanta will complicate things for Gignac, but there is something about the playoffs that makes the France international transform himself into Mr. Liguilla.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.