One devastating defeat at the Monumental threatened to push Tigres UANL off course. The heavy defeat to River Plate in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final never featured in the grand plan. The massive outlay in the summer girded the squad for glory, not disaster. It left Tigres manager Ricardo Ferretti to figure out how to move forward and place his squad in position to atone for those setbacks in Liga MX.
Even with a flurry of good results at the start of the Apertura, Tigres still took a while to process the fallout. Ferretti spent a couple of months splitting his time with the Mexican national team and steering El Tri to the CONCACAF Cup victory over the United States. The results inevitably dipped as CONCACAF Champions League commitments served as a distraction from league obligations. Everyone knew the true measure of success or failure loomed in the Liguilla, anyways.
It is now time for Tigres to justify the lavish spending and secure that precious trophy at last. Pumas UNAM awaits in the final. The first leg at the formidable Estadio Universitario on Thursday provides Tigres with a chance to lay down a marker and set the stage for the ultimate triumph in the return match on Sunday.
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Tigres enters this final as the favorites to win the title, even though Pumas finished atop the table during the Apertura. It is a reflection of Tigres' ruthless march through the Liguilla to this point and the settled nature of the formidable squad.
There is no masking Tigres' intent: Ferretti asks his players to retain possession and wield it menacingly. It is a brief carried out with considerable precision based on the chemistry within the ranks and the ingenuity of going forward. All of the usual hallmarks -- the deft work of Guido Pizarro (the best player in possession in Liga MX, according to Opta statistics) in the center of the field, the pace from Javier Aquino and Jurgen Damm in the wide areas and the ruthlessness of André-Pierre Gignac up front -- rise to the fore here.
After spending much of the season relying on the miserly defensive core (16 goals conceded in 17 Apertura matches, tops in Liga MX), Tigres finally allied resolve with potency during this Liguilla. Gignac struck twice in the 3-1 aggregate victory over Chiapas in the quarterfinals. Aquino and Damian Alvarez produced a pair of late goals at La Bombonera to secure safe passage against Toluca in the semis. Their work over the course of the four matches hinted at the potential for further growth ahead in this final.
"I see my team well," Ferretti said in the buildup to this first leg in San Nicolas de los Garza. "We are in a good moment. Our performances corroborate our place. At this stage, the situation becomes complicated. The parties are different. We face an opponent who was first overall over 17 fixtures. We know their capacity. We will prepare in all aspects."
Pumas' proficiency on the counter requires the most preparation. Ferretti is not known for throwing caution to the wind, but he must guard against the prospect of Pumas moving quickly through midfield and presenting a genuine threat to his back four. Tigres holds the finest defensive record this season with Juninho and Hugo Ayala forming a particularly defiant central defensive partnership, but Pumas boasts the tools to pose a threat with its inventive wingers Fidel Martinez and Ismael Sosa (handed a new contract on Wednesday) and the robust presence of Eduardo Herrera up front.
Herrera serves as the touchstone for a side constructed to proceed briskly from back to front. His aerial presence and his creditable goalscoring record (10 goals in 21 appearances this season) make him a considerable threat, particularly when Javier Cortés (given a reprieve by the Disciplinary Committee on Wednesday after an awful tackle broke Club América midfielder Javier Güemez's leg on Sunday) locates space in central midfield and Martinez and Sosa push forward with the opposition stretched. Pumas manager Guillermo Vazquez adopted a 4-2-3-1 setup and eschewed any reliance on possession (only Veracruz garnered a lower share of possession this season, according to Opta statistics) to extract the best from the pieces at hand.
Those tactics worked particularly well during the Apertura, but Pumas muddled through the Liguilla to reach this stage. The similarities with Veracruz led to a 1-1 draw on aggregate in the quarterfinals, while the excellent 3-0 victory at Club América in the first leg of the semifinals provided just enough of a cushion to survive a nasty 3-1 defeat in the return affair on Sunday. Pumas must cast aside that miserable performance against Las Aguilas to genuinely chase an eighth title.
"The group is just thinking about this week: the two most important games of the tournament," Pumas defender Marcelo Alatorre told the club's official website. "We only have in mind that we face Tigres and we have to win. We had a dip in the last game, but Pumas are favorites to be champion."
Alatorre assessed the situation correctly: The pressure falls squarely on Tigres. This final beckons as a make or break moment for this expensively assembled side. It is time for Ferretti and his players to vindicate their path by forgetting about the failures of the past and procuring a championship at last.