The only thing that is a guarantee entering tomorrow's the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League finals between Pachuca and Tigres is that the continental title will stay in Mexico for a twelfth straight time. A sign of the continued strong hold the Mexican league has over the rest of the region.
The two-legged series itself offers a contrast of ideas and philosophies between two of Mexico’s most recently successful clubs and two clubs who look to justify their beliefs with continental gold.
Star power look to shine
In regards to soccer in the America’s, there might not be a more consistent and talented roster than Tigres over the last three years. The Monterrey-based club has maybe the most impressive collection of talent that’s ever been seen in Mexican soccer by a club. Hugo Ayala, Jorge Torres Nilo, Jesus Duenas, Javier Aquino, and Jurgen Damm are all Mexican national team regulars. Luis Advíncula, Nahuel Guzmán, Guido Pizarro, and Eduardo Vargas represented Peru, Argentina, and Chile respectively in last month's CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying.
Of course, the biggest name of them all is French international Andre-Pierre Gignac who played for the host nation during the 2016 Euros. Their leader on the field is Brazilian defender Juninho, who has represented Tigres for over 200 games now.
On the bench the team in lead by Ricardo Ferretti, who some US fans will recognize as the coach on the bench for Mexico to the 2015 CONCACAF Cup win as interim coach. Ferretti has spent the last seven years coaching the Monterrey club which is unheard of in Mexican soccer. The disciplinarian is the type of coach with the personality to handle such star power.
Tigres enter the first leg at home on a roll, they easily dispatched the Vancouver Whitecaps in the CCL semifinals. After a slow start to the Clausura season in Liga MX, the team has blown their last two opponents away with 3-0 and 4-0 wins and find themselves just one point behind their CCL finals rival for a top 8 spot the league table and a place in the Liguilla (Playoffs) with three games left to play.
Champions of two of the last three Liga MX titles, runners of in the 2015 Copa Libertadores and 2016 CCL, a CCL crown is the last piece missing for this group to justify their place among one of Mexico’s great dynasties.
Young and fearless
Standing in their way are the young bucks of Pachuca. If Tigres are known for the big star power and signings, which has impressed Liga MX fans to see what levels can actually be reached in Mexico, Pachuca is impressive for the success the team has achieved with their core of Mexican youth. Victor Guzman, Raul Lopez, and Erick Aguilar are all Mexican players between 20-24 who have been given the chance to shine with Pachuca, whether coming up for their young teams to buying the players.
Tigres starlet Jurgen Damm and Chivas midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro started made their names and Mexican national team debuts under Pachuca before being sold above market value. The most well known of all the youngsters is budding starlet Hirving Lozano, who’s made an imprint with Pachuca and Mexico with his striking quickness and fearless runs. The team is led by 21-year-old captain and midfielder Erick Gutierrez, who has already played for Pachuca over 100 times in the first division.
A combination of a team fearless in their attack and too young to know when to say when this combination was on full display against FC Dallas in the CCL Semifinals when an 80th-minute screamer for Lozano secured their spot in the semifinals. A little less than a year after a 90th-minute winner in the Clausura finals against Monterrey gave them the title and put them in the CCL.
Key to the first leg
Pachuca will have to manage the first leg and now allow Tigres to take over the game from the start. El Volcan, the home stadium of the Tigres is one of the most intimidating places to play in all of Latin America and can easily become overwhelming for visiting teams if Tigres are allowed to dominate the game. Tigres at their best love to dominate the ball and control the pace and play of the game with possession and wait to put their dangerous attack of Aquino, Sosa, Vargas, Gignac and Damm in a great position to overwhelm you.
Pachuca will have to be strong in the back line and look to use the quickness of Lozano and the size of Jara to quickly counter the gaps that could be left behind Tigres. The key battle could be between Pizarro of Tigres and Gutierrez of Pachuca. Both are keys to their teams in the midfield and both are the connective tissue of their teams in the midfield and the ones who dictate the rest of the team. If the Mexican youngster can keep up with the Argentine international, Pachuca will have a great chance to leave Tigres in a good position for the second leg at home next week.
The last two Liga MX champions, two clubs who’ve shown the rest of Liga MX how to achieve success through different methods of operation will meet over the next two legs to try and validate their philosophies in hopes of continental glory.