Monterrey caps brilliant regular season as Liga MX playoffs set
Atlas and Cruz Azul both confirmed their places in the 2017 Apertura playoffs this weekend, with Necaxa losing out in the final round of matches in the regular season.
1. Playoffs set with Clasico Joven the highlight
There were only really two playoff spots up for grabs this past weekend, but with Cruz Azul and Atlas both picking up points, Necaxa fell out of the Liguilla after its loss to Morelia.
That has set up Monterrey (1) against Atlas (8), Tigres (2) versus Leon (7), America (3) and Cruz Azul (6) and Morelia (4) against Toluca (5) in the quarterfinals, which will start on Wednesday.
There is no doubt that the highlight is the Mexico City derby between Club America and Cruz Azul, but there will be intrigue about how Tigres recover from Saturday's defeat against Monterrey (see below) and if Atlas can do the unimaginable and upset Monterrey.
2. Monterrey cap dominant season with Clasico Regio victory
Monterrey had the best attack, best defense, highest goal-scorer (Aviles Hurtado), most wins and fewest losses during 2017 Apertura regular season. Reaching 37 points -- at 2.18 points per game -- is a mark very rarely achieved in a league known for parity.
Monterrey has been a cut above and capped off the regular season with a 2-0 home victory over city rival Tigres in Saturday's Clasico Regio.
The game exhibited Antonio Mohamed's blueprint for Monterrey this season. Rayados had less than 40 percent possession, a low 66 percent pass completion rate and 55 fewer completed passes than the opposition. Yet despite not holding the ball against the Liga MX's most possession-orientated team, Monterrey largely controlled the game. Mohamed said afterwards that Monterrey could have scored five or six and he wasn't far wrong.
Tigres' Ricardo Ferretti admitted his team's shortcomings and suggested there is much work to do ahead of the Liguilla. He's right, but Tigres should still be feared.
If there is a downside for Monterrey, it is the state of the pitch at Estadio BBVA Bancomer. Tigres keeper Nahuel Guzman ripped up turf that had been come loose in the penalty area, making the point that rival Monterrey has one of the worst playing surfaces in Liga MX.
3. Hurtado, Boselli share top goal-scorer award
Hurtado has been without doubt the signing of the offseason AS the former Club Tijuana forward has proven to be the missing piece in Mohamed's jigsaw at Monterrey. The Colombian fits Monterrey's counter-attacking style, but it was a header from a set piece on Saturday that helped him level Leon's Mauro Boselli's 11 goals in the regular season.
Boselli couldn't find the scoresheet in Leon's 2-0 home loss to Chivas, but wins his third goal-scoring title, joining the likes of Enrique Borja, Luis Garcia and Carlos Hermosillo.
The top Mexican was Pachuca's attacking midfielder Victor Guzman on eight goals. He was the only Mexico-born player in the top 13 scorers this Apertura.
4. Necaxa fails at final hurdle
The real loser this weekend was Necaxa. Manager "Nacho" Ambriz's side began the weekend in seventh position in the table. After Pachuca equalized late against Atlas 1-1 on Friday, Los Rayos only needed a point at home to Morelia to secure a spot in the playoffs.
But having been one of the most defensively solid teams all season, Morelia eased to a two-goal lead within 25 minutes. Former Atlas player Martin Barragan made it 2-1 just after halftime, but Necaxa still couldn't overcome the deficit.
Even after signing Mati Fernandez from Fiorentina in the last transfer window, Necaxa wasn't expected to make the playoffs. While not doing so is obviously a disappointment, the team from Aguascalientes now has a foundation to build on under Ambriz.
5. Cruz Azul back in the playoffs
It's been three long years and a six-season drought, but Cruz Azul -- one of Mexico's "big four" and with eight titles -- is finally back in the Liguilla, after much-criticized Spanish coach Paco Jemez guiding the team to a sixth-place finish.
The 1-0 win over Veracruz on Saturday was fully deserved, but it wasn't without its nervous moments for La Maquina fans, who will feel relief more than anything at reaching the playoffs.
A quarterfinal against America is mouthwatering as La Maquina tries for its first title in 20 years. While the Monterrey teams and America are the favorites, there is almost a sense that Cruz Azul has little to lose.
For Veracruz, the result meant it finished 2017 in last place in the relegation league, eight points behind Queretaro, with one team going down in May.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.