And then there were four! The quarterfinals of the 2023 Clausura season are now officially over, leaving four teams in the running for the Liga MX title. After the latest batch of playoff games, here are four talking points and some thoughts ahead of this week's semifinal matches, which includes a mouth-watering set of games in the Clasico Regio and Clasico Nacional.
Club America win ugly over San Luis, earn date with Chivas
In an exceedingly rare instance, No. 2 Club America looked relieved after a 2-1 loss at home.
Las Aguilas sneaked into the semis 4-3 on aggregate over No. 12 Atletico San Luis despite losing Sunday's second leg thanks to last Wednesday's 3-1 away win.
Job done for Club America, but it wasn't pretty during those last 90 minutes at Estadio Azteca.
In the second leg, San Luis wingers such as Vitinho and Jhon Murillo easily surpassed Club America's aging full-backs while creating plenty of danger. A little too confident and willing to sit back defensively at home, Las Aguilas suddenly found themselves down by two goals by the 31st minute after goals from the visitors through Unai Bilbao and Leo Bonatini.
By half-time, San Luis -- who had only five wins in 17 regular-season games -- needed just one more goal to stun the Mexico City side. Although San Luis goalkeeper Andres Sanchez did an excellent job of halting many of the efforts that hit the target, Brian Rodriguez's goal in the 88th minute was enough to ensure the win.
🔥🔥😎😎 ¡Llegó el gol de Las Águilas!— TUDN USA (@TUDNUSA) May 14, 2023
🔥🔥😎😎 ¡Llegó el gol de Las Águilas!
🔥🔥😎😎 ¡Llegó el gol de Las Águilas!
🦅 América 1-2 Atlético San Luis ⚪🔴
🔴 EN VIVO: https://t.co/KNmEgyHg2E
📺 TUDN | Univisión#LiguillaEnTUDN | #SomosAmérica | #ConAlmaPotosina pic.twitter.com/MmKyC8cGs4
With some unexpected problems on Saturday, Club America manager Fernando Ortiz appeared displeased with the surprisingly difficult end to the quarterfinal series.
"The goal was to move on to the next round, but it's not the way that we wanted," Ortiz said after the match. "To achieve glory you have to suffer; today we suffered in the first half."
In the semis, they might not be able to afford to struggle as much as they did in that second leg. Up against No. 3 Chivas, they'll not only face off against their longtime rivals, but also against a side that have already claimed a rivalry triumph in this season's playoffs.
Chivas beat Tapatio rivals Atlas to set up Clasico clash
Chivas had nobody but themselves to blame after losing 1-0 in their first quarterfinal leg last Thursday against No. 9 Atlas, their crosstown rivals. Foreshadowed by an early missed penalty and poor performance from their star players, Los Rojiblancos were left with a hill to climb in their home leg on Sunday.
Needing at least one goal to go through on a higher-seed tiebreaker, Chivas were guided by their unforeseen heroes from the back line. Jesus Orozco stepped up with a goal line clearance in the early stages of the match, full-backs Alan Mozo and Antonio Briseño collected a long list of interventions in their own half, and then in the 60th minute, central defender Gilberto "Tiba" Sepulveda scored the lone goal of the match.
🔥 ¡¡¡SEPÚLVEDA ROMPE EL CERO!!!— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) May 15, 2023
¡El 'Tiba' marca un GOLAZO de cabeza y con este gol, están clasificando a las Semifinales ✅
⚽️ @Chivas 1-0 @AtlasFC (1-1)
EN VIVO por 📺 @Telemundo y📱 @peacock ➡️ https://t.co/OrfipqGafO#ChivasEnTelemundo #ClásicoTapatío pic.twitter.com/RGT52WCpiQ
Atlas pressed higher up the field in final minutes, needing to score just once to surpass Chivas, but were halted by late heroics from goalkeeper Miguel "Wacho" Jimenez. The keeper, along with other game-changers like Mozo, Briseño and Orozco, were sturdy in their efforts that solidified the win (1-1 aggregate) and a spot in the semifinal round.
Against Club America in a tantalizing two-legged playoff series, Chivas can gain revenge on their rivals who bested them 4-2 in March. If they are to defeat Las Aguilas and win this season's title, Chivas would also tie Club America's current record of 13 league championships.
"I think it's an extra motivation," winger Alexis Vega said to Telemundo about a chance to play Club America. "We have a score to settle with them."
With manager Veljko Paunovic already exceeding expectations in his first season with Chivas, the coach's organized and pragmatic approach will be put to an even bigger test this week.
Tigres survive Toluca to book Clasico Regio vs. Monterrey
If there's one thing that you can predict about the Liga MX playoffs, it's unpredictability. After No. 7 Tigres took a 4-1 lead over No. 4 Toluca in the first quarterfinal leg, the series seemed all but over. Toluca would need to score at least three goals against a team that had allowed more than two goals in a Liga MX game just twice in 2023.
Which is what Toluca would go on to do at home on Sunday.
Up 3-0 by the 53rd minute and with a higher-seed tiebreaker in their favor, Los Diablos Rojos were brilliant with their energetic pressing and aggressive attacking presence. Manager Ignacio "Nacho" Ambriz, one of the most canny and craftful minds in the league, then overanalyzed his game plan that wasn't broken and introduced a five-man back line in the late stages of the match.
Tigres, recognizing a chance to capitalize on their now-defensive opponents, came roaring back with a more advanced approach that changed the outcome of the series. Quickly and cleverly moving the ball in Toluca's end, Tigres scored in the 71st minute after Sebastian Cordova headed in a perfectly lofted cross from striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
⚽🙌😎 Gooooool de Tigres— TUDN USA (@TUDNUSA) May 14, 2023
⚽🙌😎 Gooooool de Tigres
⚽🙌😎 Gooooool de Tigres
🐯 Tigres vuelve a estar arriba en la eliminatoria
👹 3 (4-5) 1 🐯
🔴 EN VIVO: https://t.co/SZ0bssjhGL
📺 TUDN | Univisión#LiguillaEnTUDN pic.twitter.com/BOlo1ySOU6
Readjusting his tactics once again, Ambriz failed to do much against Tigres afterward as Toluca were eliminated by the 5-4 aggregate scoreline -- despite the 3-1 win.
As seen in the quarterfinals, Tigres have been an inconsistent mess throughout 2023. With their third manager in charge since January and with erratic results, Los Felinos from Nuevo Leon can look like a talent-heavy powerhouse one game, but then a skittish tabby the next.
So, what's Tigres' prize for fending off Toluca? A semifinal series against crosstown rivals, No. 1 Monterrey. We'll see which one we get, or perhaps both, against the league leaders.
Top side Monterrey fail to impress against Santos
The good news for top-of-the-table Monterrey? They didn't allow a single goal against No. 13 Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals and went through with a 2-0 aggregate scoreline.
The bad news? It wasn't exactly a convincing batch of games from the league leaders, who looked ponderous and indifferent in their start to the playoffs --- especially in the first leg. After finishing with a dull scoreless scoreline in their away leg last Wednesday, things at least improved slightly for Los Rayados at home on Saturday.
By the third minute of the weekend's second leg, striker Rogelio Funes Mori alleviated a number of worries with his fifth goal since April. After surviving an assertive response from Santos -- which featured a VAR decision that narrowly ruled out a goal due to an offside run -- Monterrey then solidified their place in the semis with a well-placed shot from Maximiliano Meza in the 68th minute that made it 2-0.
Even though Santos were unlucky to finish the game without a goal and collected eight shots in the 18-yard box, Monterrey manager Victor Manuel Vucetich applauded the performance from his team's backline.
"The defense has worked very well, that puts me at ease," Vucetich said after Saturday's 2-0 victory. "Defenses always have that chance to win titles."
That said, Monterrey can't be as relaxed this week as they were in the quarterfinal round. Out-shot and out-possessed in the second leg, they ran into far too many problems against a Santos team that were invited to the playoffs only because No. 10 Queretaro were ineligible (last in the coefficient table).
This could lead to even more issues for Monterrey against Tigres, but for fans looking forward to fireworks in the semifinal round, the lack of a true standout in the quarterfinals means the likelihood of more dramatic moments will only increase this week in the Liga MX playoffs.