The Case for La Franja

When considering contenders for the next Liga MX title, it's safe to start with the usuals. For as much craziness, disguised under the parity label, as this league presents, title challenges and eventual trophies normally end up in the hands of the power teams.

This season is wide open. The Monterrey teams are the clear favorites. Tigres have the most stacked roster and Rayados are playing the best at the moment. America, Leon, Pachuca, and Cruz Azul (gulp) all look capable of making a run.  Even Santos Laguna appear to have climbed out of the post-title hangover that weighed them down last season.  We could get in to Toluca and Pumas who have the talent to compete for a title but are also busy with Copa Libertadores.

All of those teams have at least a shot at the trophy, but there aren't even enough Liguilla spots for this group. Yet, I'd say there is a distinct chance that one of the last teams that may come to mind when thinking of titles has a solid chance of pulling off the unthinkable this time around.

Puebla isn't a power in Mexican soccer. Puebla isn't even a middling team. There's a case to be made that they've been one of the most dysfunctional teams in Mexico for years. They've had trouble fielding a respectable squad. They've had issues paying their players. They've flirted with relegation time and time again. Puebla has been an absolute mess.

The current iteration of this team bears little resemblance to  these descriptors. The path from pushovers to respectability follows a similar path trod many times before. A team facing relegation retools with increased desperation. This new team with more investment in the squad increases their level of play through their boost in talent and the necessity of warding off the stink of failure.

Normally, this is only a temporary bump. Once the threat of dropping dissipates and the safety of continued first division football becomes a reality, the spark that fired an entire roster is snuffed out.   Not many teams looked stronger than Veracruz during their fight to avoid relegation.  The Tiburones Rojos were, for a short period of time, one of the three or four best teams in the league. They aren't that now. With their safety secured, a roster that largely remained the same has never been the same.

It's the natural course of things.

Puebla has defied this regression. They are now playing at a consistently high level.  This started with the relegation fight, continued on through their Copa MX run, and spilled into this Clausura.

The root causes of this reluctance to fade are seemingly varied. The greatest of great teams cannot be successful without a legitimate scorer up top.  Puebla have their true assassin on the front line in Matias Alustiza.  The veteran forward continues to bang in the goals while drawing attention away from his running mates. Those running mates are often making great runs.  Players such as David Toledo, Christian Valdez, and even Hobbit Bermudez have demonstrated the desire to be in the right place at the right time for this team.

That is probably the one thing that sticks out above the rest with Puebla. They play a strong team game. A look at the roster still reveals a typical Puebla type of grouping. Aging cast-offs mixed with plenty of loanees create a patchwork quilt of a team marked by the need to keep the budget at a workable level.  To make this team work a strong manager is needed. Puebla certainly has that.

Argentine manager, Pablo Marini has Puebla playing an organized and strong approach week in and week out. His group is rarely out of position and plays as a cohesive unit that just works. The defensive structure is always solid. There isn't a ton of talent to work with defensively, but they play as a unit. Robert Herrera has been strong for them since coming from Uruguay. The loaned-out Guadalajara man, Pato Araujo has anchored the team well in the midfield and Cristian Campestrini has made some incredible saves in goal. Beyond that there is little to highlight. Puebla's defenders can be beaten. However, they are rarely out of position and can do well to frustrate potent Liga MX attacks. Marini must get enormous amounts of credit for what he has done with this squad.   

The Copa Libertadores didn't work out for Puebla. Their Copa MX and SuperCopa win allowed them first stage entry to the illustrious South American tournament. Seemingly outclassed by the company they would be keeping in the tournament, their play didn't reflect this disparity. Matched with Racing of Argentina in the play-in series, they failed to advance to the group stage. There is little to be gained from this failure, but it was clear that they belonged on the same field. They failed to advance, but for large portions of the two-legged fixture, Puebla was the superior team.

With full focus now on the league, Puebla presents a tough match for every team on their schedule regardless of their position in the table.

Puebla aren't the favorites to win the title. It's possible that they won't even make the Liguilla. Yet, they have a legitimate chance at winning it all this season. This is truly saying something.

 

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