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Liga MX 2018 Apertura: What you need to know before kickoff

Liga MX

Apertura: Martinez tops list of 10 new players to watch

Liga MX

Santos Laguna, Toluca linked by their owners

Liga MX
 By Tom Marshall

Rafa Marquez impresses in return; Monterrey continue to dominate

Herculez Gomez debates whether Monterrey's Jonathan Gonzalez's international future lies with the U.S. or Mexico.

Playoff places are going down to the wire in Liga MX, with just two rounds of regular season matches to go in the 2017 Apertura following the weekend's games.

1. Rafa returns as Ravel nets for Atlas

The 80 days between the news that Rafa Marquez had been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for links to a drug-trafficking organization and the 38-year-old returning to the pitch were probably some of the hardest he has been through.

So much is still up in the air in terms of Marquez's future with the Mexico national team but, from a purely sporting perspective, returning and playing 90 minutes for Atlas in the 2-2 draw away at Queretaro on Saturday was a major step.

Marquez was one of the best players on the pitch in his holding midfield role, playing more passes than anyone from either team. Despite his recent absence and the assumption it would take the former Barcelona man some games to get back into rhythm, Marquez managed to go the full 90 and impressed.

The veteran's return also allowed former Manchester United midfielder Ravel Morrison the space to play further forward. The 24-year-old appeared more comfortable, netting Atlas' opener after a mistake playing out of the back from the usually reliable Tiago Volpi in Queretaro's goal. Morrison also had a pretty incredible 94 percent pass-completion rate, according to TruMedia, over the 88 minutes he was on the pitch.

Atlas will consider themselves unlucky not to have won the game, given the way they dominated possession, but they are still in the playoff fight. Queretaro, however, is now out of the postseason race and needs to regroup to battle against relegation in the 2017 Clausura.

2. Monterrey clubs take charge at top

Sometimes the idea of parity in Liga MX seems exaggerated. It is true that more teams can genuinely aspire to the title than in Spain, England or Germany, but Monterrey's average of 2.36 points per game this season is higher than that of Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid in Spain, and Bayern Munich in Germany.

Monterrey's match against Club America on Saturday was supposed to be a test for Las Aguilas. It was billed as an opportunity to see where Miguel Herrera's team was at. This wasn't a bad performance from America, but the 2-0 victory for Monterrey left Herrera heading back to Mexico City scratching his head over how to find weaknesses in Antonio Mohamed's side.

Monterrey is just dominant right now, but the team with the best chance of derailing what looks to be a march towards the Apertura title is city rival Tigres.

Tigres headed south to Mexico City to face Cruz Azul, earning a 2-1 victory after La Maquina's Angel Mena was sent off on the stroke of half-time.

Was it vintage Tigres? Not by any means. There is work to do for Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti, but Tigres are the only team to have won their last three Liga MX matches and look set to finish the regular season in second place. And all that without ever really giving the sense they've clicked in this Apertura.

While the very nature of the playoffs means they throw up surprises, this weekend was a reminder that clubs from the northern state of Nuevo Leon are very much the favorites for the title.

3. Don't forget about the "underdogs"

Teams such as Morelia, Necaxa and Leon don't get anywhere near the same coverage as Mexico's big four -- America, Chivas, Cruz Azul and Pumas -- in the domestic press, but all three look set for the playoffs.

Leon recorded a remarkable 6-2 win over Veracruz on Saturday, despite playing 20 minutes of the game a man down, after Alexander Mejia got sent off. Mauro Boselli and Elias Hernandez each netted twice, again highlighting just how important both are to La Fiera.

But while Leon have been in their fair share of playoffs in recent years, Morelia hasn't. Coach Roberto Hernandez's team were slightly fortunate not to concede when Toluca got a late penalty, but the 1-0 win moved Morelia into third place. Morelia goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa was the player of the match, with young centre-back Jorge Valadez not far behind.

Finally, Necaxa maintained its usual sturdiness at the back and added firepower, dismissing Lobos BUAP 5-0 on Saturday. Notably, former Fiorentina forward Mati Fernandez was left on the bench, with Martin Barragan the star of the show.

4. Chivas youngster Macias lifts team

This was a weekend in which there were 34 goals scored -- an average of 3.8 per game -- and seven red cards shown. After it ended, the list of teams that can't make the playoffs now reads: Pumas, Queretaro Veracruz, Puebla and Chivas.

But perhaps this weekend's best moment was when Jose Juan Macias scored his first Liga MX goals to help Chivas to a 3-1 win over struggling Club Tijuana. The first one was smashed in off the underside of the crossbar from the edge of the area and the second a well-placed strike into the corner from outside the box.

Macias arrived at Chivas when he was four years old; he has a very good record at youth level and looks to have a bright future. His performance was also a reminder to some of the more established names at the club, who have failed this season in defending their title, that their places in the squad may not be as secure as they'd thought.

5. Cause for concern at Toluca, Cruz Azul and Xolos

A couple of weeks ago, Toluca, Cruz Azul and Club Tijuana looked set for spots in postseason. Now there is some doubt, with all three losing their last two games.

Toluca should make it from 23 points, with a victory away at Veracruz or at home to Club Tijuana in its remaining games likely enough. For Cruz Azul, on 21 points, the pressure is on and La Maquina probably will need a win and a draw against Morelia (away) and Veracruz (home).

Xolos have only won one of their last seven matches and will have to defeat Leon at home and Toluca away to reach 24 points, which may scrape them into postseason.

Santos Laguna and Pachuca drew 2-2 on Sunday evening, a result that suited neither team. Santos need to win their remaining three games; Pachuca will have to win its final two and hope results fall for them elsewhere.

All eyes will be on Estadio Jalisco on Wednesday as Atlas take on Tigres. It's a key game for the playoff situation: A victory for Atlas would lift the Guadalajara club above Cruz Azul and Toluca into seventh place.

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


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