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Toluca gunning for title record in Liga MX final against Tijuana

By Tom Marshall



Edgar Benitez (R) of Toluca, celebrates his goal against America, during their Mexican Apertura tournament semifinal football match at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, on November 22, 2012
Edgar Benitez (R) of Toluca, celebrates his goal against America, during their Mexican Apertura tournament semifinal football match at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, on November 22, 2012

Toluca gunning for title record in Liga MX final against Tijuana

It’s a peculiarity of Mexican football that Toluca isn’t considered one of the ‘big four.’ That dubious honour belongs to Chivas, America, Pumas and Cruz Azul, four teams that have won just seven out of 29 championships in Mexico since 1998; the same number as Toluca have alone in that same period.  

Victory for Toluca over Tijuana in the two-legged Liga MX final on Thursday and Sunday would propel the Diablos Rojos to 11 league titles and equal Chivas at the most successful club in Mexican football, regardless of whether they are a grande or not.

But getting their hands on the Apertura tournament trophy this Sunday is no foregone conclusion.

Opponents Tijuana have been a revelation since winning promotion to the first division in May 2011 and arrive at the final having already overachieved and with little to lose.

In the border team’s corner is manager Antonio Mohamed. The charismatic and pragmatic Argentine is a young coach with a burgeoning reputation that will be attracting interest from team owners far beyond Mexico.

Mohamed has forged a team loaded with experience that hangs off his every word and has an innate ability to carry out tactical plans to a T. That usually involves playing solidly with busy central midfielders and hitting opposition on the counter-attack, often making use of the pace of Colombian forward Duvier Riascos.

But when things go sour, like when they lost the semifinal first leg 2-0 away at Leon, Tijuana showed in the second leg that they can adapt. The 3-0 victory last Sunday was a lesson in controlled attacking football and in managing a game over the 90 minutes. Few gave the Xolos a chance of coming back pregame, but the team has Mexico’s best defence over the last two regular seasons as a platform to build from. 

There was no gung-ho forward surge, just consistent pressure and solidity at the back that reaped rewards on the artificial turf of the Estadio Caliente.

“We are here to write and make history,” Mohamed, who lifted the 2010 Copa Sudamericana as coach of Independiente, said this week. “We have confidence in ourselves and we will try not to talk a lot and show ourselves on the pitch.”

Against Toluca, the spine of the team - goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo, centre back Javier Gandolfi, central midfielder Fernando Arce and Riascos  - will be key if Tijuana are to win their first ever title.

On the other side, 64-year-old Toluca manager Enrique Meza coached Mohamed in the late 90s at Toros Neza and this final is very much a case of student taking on the teacher. There is mutual respect between the two.

Meza has already won three of his four Mexican titles at the Diablos Rojos in a previous stint at the club and this season the club finished top of the regular season. There is something about Meza at Toluca that clicks and it is testament to the manager that Toluca are in the position they find themselves in after losing star striker Ivan Alonso before the season had begun.

Also an experienced outfit, Toluca displayed a textbook performance against in the Estadio Azteca and won the game 2-0, easily handling America’s notorious strikeforce with possession-based football.

The key figure for them is still number 10 Sinha, who dictates play and, at 36, is still in the Mexican national team picture. He is determined to win his sixth title, but is putting the past to one side.

“Histories are still to be written,” Sinha told the press in Toluca. “More than what it means to one person, the most important thing is what a title means to the club and the people who follow the team.”

Interestingly, in the second leg of the semi, America packed the midfield, nullified Sinha and went into halftime 2-0 up. Substitutions from Meza at halftime helped Toluca, but the temptation for Mohamed to crowd the midfield or the man-mark Sinha will be strong.

But, on paper, Toluca, playing the second leg at home, should have enough to clinch that historic 11th title, although everything points to the Liga MX final being a tight, low-scoring affair. The battle for the midfield will be key.

The first leg will be played on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, 3 a.m. UK time), with the return leg in Toluca on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, 12 midnight UK time).

Stats:

Last 3 games H2H: Tijuana 1-0 Toluca, Tijuana 1-1 Toluca, Toluca 1-1 Tijuana

Regular season:

Toluca – 34 pts, 28 goals, 17 against

Tijuana – 34 pts, 23 goals, 15 against

Possible line-ups:

Toluca

Alfredo Talavera

Marvin Cabrera

Edgar Duenas

Carlos Rodriguez

Diego Novaretti

Sinha

Wilson Tiago

Antonio Rios

Lucas Silva

Luis Tejada

Carlos Esquivel

Tijuana

Cirilo Saucedo

Juan Carlos Nunez

Pablo Aguilar

Javier Gandolfi

Edgar Castillo

Fernando Arce

Christian Pellerano

Fidel Martinez

Leandro Augusto

Alfredo Moreno

Duvier Riascos