This season started with the normalcy one would expect in recent years. Many teams looked good. There was a hint of resurgence from some. There were the dregs of the league performing justly. And the power of the league resided in Monterrey.
Rayados, under the leadership of Antonio Mohamed, looked to be back in the driver's seat in the league. Their form had been growing for a few seasons. Their acquisition of big time South American talent was paying off. Mohammed imposed his physical nature and defensive organization on a squad that had lost its way. Rayados were again Rayados.
Tigres were coming off their momentous 2015 that saw them capture the title in dramatic fashion and come within 90 minutes of the Copa Libertadores trophy. The ridiculously stacked roster of Tigres had little reason to be anything other than the prohibitive favorites to repeat as champion.
Crazy things happen in this league. Anyone with some history with Liga MX knows not to hold too tightly to the hopes of any one team. The Liguilla is a minefield waiting for the best to take one clumsy step. They often do just that. We could call it "The Curse of the Superlider" if it only came for the team at the very top. The Liguilla will strike down deserving champions with impunity.
This season, despite this unpredictability, looked to be an arms race between the teams from Nuevo Leon. Which one would build as the season went on? Which side of Monterrey would avoid the pitfalls come the deciding moments?
It hasn't played out that way.
Rayados are living up to their half of the arrangement. In first place with four games remaining, they have already locked up their Liguilla place. Their 6-0 demolition of Chiapas this weekend put an exclamation point on their status as title favorites. They are doing everything you could want from a title contender at this point.
We can't say the same for Tigres. Their loss to Pachuca this weekend pushed them out of the current top eight in the standings. Reasons for the drop in results are mixed. It's a fairly proven that defending a title is often harder than making a run to the first in almost any team sport. The hunger is just not the same after the pinnacle has been reached. The championship hangover could be playing a part in what we are seeing from Tigres. It also appears that the team has gone through something of an identity shift. The normally pragmatic or even staunchly defensive (depending on your feelings about Mr. Tuca Ferretti) squad has shifted under their recent talent acquisition. Javier Aquino, Jurgen Damm, and Andre-Pierre Gignac don't make for a team that is always happy to sit back and wait to pounce. This is not to say that those players are incapable to playing the counter-attack. They certainly have the ability to do just that. The overall identity of this team is just not the same. The combination of this dynamic attacking talent along with being the team everyone is looking to take down has loosened the padlock that used to reside in front of the Tigres goal. This weekend's loss at Pachuca is emblematic of this altered identity. If any team was capable of getting a lead and sitting on it for the remaining minutes it would normally be a Tuca-led squad. Pachuca could score on any defense, but Tigres normally win games like that regardless of their opposition. Tigres still have a great chance to do something this season, but time is short. With a tightly-packed mid-table to contend with, Tigres are running out of wiggle room. Their form will need to improve if they are to even qualify for the Liguilla.
Two other teams have filled the void vacated by Tigres at the top of the pack. Neither could come as a complete shock. There is no Leicester City here. Yet, there was a fair share of doubt surrounding these two.
Club America can normally be penciled in to be one of the few with a solid chance of being there at the end of the season. As it turns out, media conglomerate money goes a long way. But setting aside my obvious bias, America was by no means a lock this season. A disappointing exit in the Liguilla last season was followed by the horrible loss to Guangzhou Evergrande in the Club World Cup. Predictably, doubts around the leadership of manager Ignacio Ambriz intensified. There was no certainty to how this team would enter a new campaign. Reinforcements like William da Silva seemed only to reinforce the one track nature of the club. This was a team that only looked to attack and left the defense of their own net to a passing afterthought. They could score but could be scored on in equal measure.
While I would argue that this still applies to this team to a certain extent, last season's title match-up might just prove that it doesn't matter. Normally this style fails in the big games when opposing defenses tighten. I'm not so sure it will be a problem for the Aguilas this time around. Their 6-1 shellacking of Tijuana on Saturday demonstrated the firepower that resides in this team. Oribe Peralta and Darwin Quintero have rekindled some of their Santos Laguna magic and found a true rhythm with America. Benedetto, Andrade, Arroyo, da Silva and even Aguilar are all more than capable of taking over scoring duties for the day should any other falter. There are just so many options. Regardless of who is putting the ball in the net, it's highly likely the service is coming from Rubens Sambueza. His play continues to be crucial for the success of the club, and fortunately for the capital city club, Sambueza is killing it.
Club America have separated themselves from the midtable bunch and look poised for a deep run. Whether they could keep away from the red cards in the big games remains to be seen.
The Tuzos of Pachuca have created some separation as well. The aforementioned win over Tigres went a long way to solidifying their place among this group. Pachuca has for some time been one of the best teams to watch week in and week out. Their contingent of young Mexican stars on the rise make them must-see viewing. However, they continue to put together a résumé that not only speaks to their talent but even more so - their mettle. The Tuzos have some holes in defense (like most teams, really), but it rarely shows up in the score line. Pachuca will be in a position to win something big come May and are squashing any doubts that certain Mexican soccer bloggers might have been clinging to.
Santos Laguna, Cruz Azul, Tigres, Leon, and a host of other mid-table teams that inexplicably includes Chivas all have a shout at pulling some upsets in the Liguilla. But they will be just that. Monterrey, America, and Pachuca have separated themselves from the pack. All others have an uphill climb to face.
** photo used under creative commons license from Pierre