Pizarro's return a big boost for Chivas; can anyone stop Gignac in playoffs?
Chivas are back in the semifinals of the Liga MX playoffs, but they haven't won a series at this stage since the 2006 Apertura. Their opponent, Toluca, hopes to cap its centennial celebrations with a trophy. Tigres, meanwhile, have won six of their past seven games, scoring 21 goals in the process. They will face first-placed Club Tijuana for a spot in the 2017 Clausura final.
Here are three storylines to follow as the first legs of the semifinals get underway on Thursday.
Pizarro's return a big boost for Chivas' attack
"[Rodolfo] Pizarro is 80 percent fit. He's the brain of the team," manager Matias Almeyda said after Chivas defeated Atlas 1-0 to advance to the semifinals, the coach's first Liguilla win in six tries.
With Pizarro on the field, Chivas' attack clears up, making it difficult for opponents to stop their dynamism. El Rebano Sagrado might have only 22 goals to its name heading into the semifinals, but Almeyda's peace of mind suggests that Pizarro can help the team recuperate its vital attacking spark.
This is a big boost for Chivas, particularly given that Javier "Chofis" Lopez proved unable to be the creative lynchpin with Pizarro out injured. There are major differences between the two, but perhaps the most important is Pizarro's evident hunger to reach higher since debuting with Pachuca in September 2012.
In the next days, Chivas will experience some of the most important dates they have lived since 2006, when they lifted their last league trophy. The players who have come in after the club splashed a significant amount of money for them to join are going to be key. Orbelin Pineda, Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez, Alan Pulido and Pizarro will have to give formidable displays in order for Chivas to reach the final.
Toluca, Tijuana have history on their side
The last time Club Tijuana reached the semifinals, it went on to play in the final and win the trophy. The season was the 2012 Apertura, and Antonio "Turco" Mohamed was the head coach. Xolos' key player back then was Colombian striker Duvier Riascos, who finished the campaign with 10 goals.
Coincidentally, five years later, Xolos are once again in the semifinals, and their main player is another Colombian attacker, Aviles Hurtado, who has been one of the most brilliant footballers to watch this Clausura. In order to repeat the 2012 story, Tijuana will have to eliminate the hottest team in the Liguilla, Tigres, and that looks to be a difficult challenge, considering that Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's team cruised to a 3-0 win in their previous meeting.
Toluca and Chivas have met in seven Liguilla series. Los Diablos Rojos have won five of them, while Chivas have only won two times, one of which came in a final. In 14 Liguilla games, Toluca has seven victories, three draws and four losses. On paper, it looks like Chivas will have a tough time breaking down Hernan Cristante's team.
Can anybody stop Gignac?
Fourteen goals in 16 matches automatically make Andre-Pierre Gignac the most decisive figure in the Liguilla. The France striker tends to shine when the season is nearing its peak, and after scoring four goals in the quarterfinals series against rival Monterrey, there seems to be no answer to stop him.
When criticism is directed toward Gignac, it mainly derives from the fact that he tends to have on-and-off moments in the regular season, in which he experiences atypical scoring droughts. As the top superstar in Liga MX, he is sort of demanded to give the performances he tends to produce in the playoffs. But Gignac already understands the short-tournament system better than most, and his interpretation of it has helped Tigres win two Liga MX titles in the past two years.
Gignac knows that goals are doubly important in the Liguilla, and he takes a lot of pleasure in crushing the stats when it matters most. Monterrey was his latest victim, and now he will set his eyes on Tijuana.
His goals aren't the only thing that make him a special talent; Gignac's ability to attract a number of defenders allows others to shine. This was noticeable in the first leg against Rayados, as Jesus Duenas scored a brace. Duenas' appearances in the opposition box were mainly without any markers around him due to the constant worry caused by Gignac.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.