It’ll be Toluca against Santos Laguna in the 2018 Clausura Liga MX final after Los Diablos Rojos overcame Tijuana and Los Guerreros got past Club America in Sunday’s semifinal second legs.
Here’s what we learned this past weekend:
1. Toluca heads to final as favorite
Twelve wins, five ties and only four losses over 21 games. With those numbers, nobody can begrudge Toluca’s place in the Clausura final, even if Sunday’s 4-1 win over Club Tijuana was its first victory of the liguilla.
This Toluca side might not be setting pulses racing, but it has been the best team this season and is now one step away from title number 11 – just one fewer than “giants” Chivas and Club America.
Toluca turned it on when it needed to against Club Tijuana on Sunday, given Los Diablos Rojos came into the game 2-1 down from the first leg.
Xolos‘ lack of concentration at the end of Thursday’s first leg that allowed Toluca a vital away goal seemed to carry over into the start of Sunday’s game. Toluca came out fired up and pushing forward, and Tijuana didn’t respond.
There were the usual external factors at Estadio Nemesio Diez — the high altitude and the sapping midday sun — but none of that could be blamed for Xolos‘ poor defending on Fernando Uribe’s opener, or his second goal in the 31st minute. Those factors didn’t play a role in Luis “Quick” Mendoza first elbowing a Toluca player and then launching a ridiculous challenge in the 37th to basically force the referee to show him a red card. And by the time Miller Bolanos had jumped into a scandalous “tackle” on Rubens Sambueza and was also sent off in the 61st it seemed to be all over.
Luis Chavez’s sensational free-kick gave Xolos a glimmer of hope, but it really only covered up how dominant Toluca had been. That was eventually emphasized through two late goals and the three-goal advantage by the final whistle.
2. Sambueza and Barrientos pull the strings
Fernando Uribe will earn the plaudits and the headlines after his three goals against Tijuana. And his movement in and around the box was too much for Xolos‘ unusually placid defense.
But the key to this season for Toluca has been the fluidity and interaction between attacking midfielder Pablo Barrientos and nominal right-winger Rubens Sambueza.
Barrientos has notched five assists and four goals, as well as creating 31 chances, while no player in the league has created more opportunities than Sambueza (49).
Sambueza, at 34, remains perhaps the most intelligent footballer in Liga MX, with a seemingly heightened awareness of time and space mixed in with ability to play very much to the limit, winding up opponents and frequently getting into trouble himself.
But when you combine the freedom that the Barrientos and Sambueza have with the more direct running of Luis Quinones down the left and the stability provided by holding midfield partnership Leonel Lopez — a future Mexico international if he can find consistency — and Antonio Rios, Toluca is a well-balanced unit going forward.
Xolos couldn’t deal with the movement and the variety of Toluca’s attacks, and really the score could’ve been even wider with better finishing.
3. Santos Laguna the story of the playoffs
If Toluca is the best team of the Clausura, Santos Laguna is the in-form side of the playoffs. While Toluca got past the unfancied Morelia on away goals and struggled in the first leg against Tijuana, Santos have been significant underdogs against first reigning champion Tigres and then Club America en route to the final.
On Sunday, Santos managed a 2-2 draw with America to claim a 6-3 aggregate victory. For a team that came into the playoffs with three consecutive losses and then lost the quarterfinal first leg against Tigres, it has been a remarkable turnaround.
There is a steel and drive about Robert Siboldi’s Santos Laguna that means Los Guerreros won’t go down without a real fight in the final against Toluca.
4. Herrera with work to do at America
Club America coach Miguel Herrera will take a lot of criticism for his side going out at the semifinal stages of both the CONCACAF Champions League and the Clausura. “Piojo out” was already trending in Mexico on the final whistle, and Herrera’s team came back to the Estadio Azteca after negative first-leg results in both the semis, which is something the coach will have to think long and hard about.
But Herrera has become much more adaptable since the 2014 World Cup. As an example, he started an ultra-attacking 3-1-4-2 formation against Santos Laguna and America seemed to catch the opposition by surprise early on as Las Aguilas raced to a 2-0 lead. The problem for America was that it had a mountain to climb after the first 90 minutes in Torreon.
The base of this Club America side, however, is very good and with one or two quality signings — as well as keeping the players already at the club like Mateus Uribe and Jeremy Menez — Las Aguilas could be right up there as favorite for the 2018 Apertura. Fans shouldn’t be too hasty in wanting Herrera out for losing a semifinal.
There will be a decision to be made about striker Oribe Peralta, who has netted only three goals in 2018 and who may well look to either move back to hometown club Santos Laguna or explore other options.
5. Future could be bright for Xolos
It has been a strange season for Tijuana, but there is much to be positive about, despite Sunday’s disappointing loss.
The front four of Bolanos, Gustavo Bou, Juan Lucero and Mendoza will cause problems if Xolos can keep them together, or even add strength in depth. At the back, Pablo Aguilar still has a couple of years left in him and 24-year-old Gibran Lajud is developing very nicely. The 4-1 score line didn’t look pretty on paper, but over the regular season Tijuana conceded the fewest goals and would’ve likely netted more had Bou not been injured for most of the Clausura.
Rumors of problems with wage payments may be an administrative blip or something more serious, but if the club is financially sound and holds onto its best players, the future looks tentatively bright for Xolos.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.