Chivas' nerves, Tigres' dominance bear watching in Clausura semifinals
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- By the end of the weekend, the Liga MX 2017 Clausura finalists will be known, with both semifinal second legs taking place on Sunday.
Chivas meet Toluca in Estadio Chivas with everything in the balance following Thursday's 1-1 first-leg draw, while Tigres take what should be a commanding 2-0 lead into Club Tijuana's Estadio Caliente.
Can Chivas hold their nerve?
There is a wave of nervous enthusiasm bordering on anxiety in Guadalajara. The club is a bona-fide giant, and its fans have smelled the whiff of a Liga MX title.
Coach Matias Almeyda said he would awaken Chivas from their slumber when he came to the club in September 2015, with the institution in the midst of a relegation battle. The words sounded nice, if initially misguided. Remember, there was absolutely no guarantee Almeyda was going to stay an extended period, given that club owner Jorge Vergara had worked his way through 22 coaches in the previous 13 years. In the five months from the start of October 2015 until the beginning of March 2016, Chivas won just one of 14 Liga MX games.
But Vergara stuck with Almeyda and the giant is well and truly awakened, accomplishing the first part of the former Lazio player's mission in Guadalajara. This is a club that boasts more than 40 million fans, and tickets for Sunday's semifinal second leg are, naturally, already sold out. People lined up from 4:30 Tuesday morning to make sure they got their hands on a ticket.
The scene is set as Chivas hunt title No. 12 to level Club America as Liga MX's most successful. The question now is whether the Chivas players (the youngest team in Liga MX this season) can finish the job against an experienced Toluca (the league's oldest side) and reach the final that could give them that sought-after title.
The returns of Rodolfo Pizarro and Angel Zaldivar from injury are huge. On the field, they are clearly important players; but mentally, everyone is well aware that Chivas' dip in form and lack of goal scoring coincided with their absences. Now that they are back, the feel-good factor surrounding this attractive Chivas side has returned. That Chivas have won only once over their past eight matches has been slightly erased from people's minds.
It'll likely be a close game against Toluca. The key question is whether Chivas' players can grasp the occasion, blossom under the pressure and convert the inevitable nerves into an insatiable drive to the final.
Sambueza the key for Toluca's title charge
Chivas' old acquaintance Rubens Sambueza will be rubbing his hands together in anticipation of Sunday's match, counting down the minutes until kickoff.
The 33-year-old former Club America midfielder was suspended for eight games for an incident earlier this season in which he lunged into a tackle on Chivas winger Isaac Brizuela, putting the influential player out for the season.
Since Sambueza returned in the quarterfinal first leg against Santos Laguna, he has been in menacing form, rejuvenated by his time out. Sambueza has the ability to turn games and is still one of the best players in the league.
Against Chivas, Sambueza's name will be booed when it is read out. But it won't bother the former River Plate player; indeed, it'll have the opposite effect. Sambueza will enjoy the atmosphere in Estadio Chivas, and if Almeyda wants to reach Chivas' first final in more than 10 years, stopping his fellow Argentine will be vital.
Another Tigres cakewalk?
Tigres head to Tijuana for Sunday's later semifinal second leg with a two-goal advantage already in the bag. Any rational analysis would suggest that Tigres won't just be in the final a week from Sunday, but it also will be lifting the 2017 Clausura trophy. The team from Nuevo Leon has simply been on a higher level, as compared to the other three semifinalists.
Thankfully, things in soccer aren't always rational. Tigres first have to negotiate at least 270 minutes more without major mistakes and keep up the good form.
The trip to Club Tijuana is a potential banana skin. No side enjoys playing on the artificial turf, and Xolos fans create an intense atmosphere in Estadio Caliente. Should Miguel Herrera's team be able to find a first-half goal, the place will ignite.
Herrera's team is capable of at least making the series competitive. After all, this Tijuana team finished in first place in both the 2016 Apertura and 2017 Clausura, and it hasn't conceded at home in 397 minutes.
On the downside, however, Colombian forward Aviles Hurtado is doubtful for the match; his absence would be a major blow. Center-back and captain Juan Carlos Valenzuela will almost certainly be missing, as well, after he left the first leg with an injury.
For Tigres, coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti needs to instill the same urgency into his players as there was in their previous five matches, including the first leg, which they won with a combined 16-2 goal ratio.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.