Mexico’s playoffs start Wednesday: Looking at the quarterfinal matchups

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The two clubs that contested CONCACAF’s championship finished at the top of Mexico’s standings. Santos Laguna, who lost Champions League to Monterrey last week, finished four points clear of the Rayados, earning the Liguilla’s top seed.

In Mexico, that seeding’s particularly important, for four reasons:

  • Like most playoff formats, the top seed gets matched against the highest seed in the playoffs; however,
  • Since Mexico re-draws their bracket in the semifinals (pairing the lowest surviving seed with the highest), the qualification stage’s winner always has the easiest road to the final.
  • The lowest seed always gets the second leg (in each round’s two-legged matchup) at home, and
  • If a matchup ends tied after both legs, the lower seed advances (until the final).

But even with all those advantages, it would surprise no one if Santos bowed out early.

#1 Santos Laguna (36 points, 17 games) vs. #8 Jaguares (27 points)

Though this is a rematch of the Apertura’s playoffs (won by Santos), a different kind of history is leaning on this matchup.

The fall of 2009 was the last time a top seed (superlider) advanced beyond the quarterfinals. Even then, it was only via a tiebreaker.

Year Tournament Superlider Quarterfinal Result Champion (Seed)
2011 Apertura Chivas lost to Querétaro, 1-2 Tigres (3)
Clausura Tigres lost to Chivas, 2-4 Pumas (2)
2010 Apertura Cruz Azul lost to Pumas, 3-2 Monterrey (2)
Clausura Monterrey lost to Pachuca, 1-3, quarterfinals Toluca (3)
2009 Apertura Toluca defeated San Luis, 1-1 Monterrey (5)

The last time a superlider won a Liguilla was the 2007 Clausura (Pachuca).

Beyond the premature exits for one seeds, there’s another pattern in there: Superliders have won the subsequent competition in their off the last four tournament (presumably motived by defeat). That won’t happen this time. Chivas was so motivated by their loss to Querétaro that they didn’t qualify for the Liguilla. Copa Lib may have had something to do with that.

Back to Santos. There’s no reason to believe there’s an actual superlider curse. Since people have come to think the qualification stage as something completely separate from the playoffs (and only slightly predictive), there’s no real pressure on the number one seed.

A more likely explanation for the curse: Teams that finish top in the regular season aren’t necessarily the best teams. They’re just the ones that tried harder during the regular season.

With Santos balancing CONCACAF Champions League’s knockout stages throughout the Clausura, that reason doesn’t hold up as well this tournament. Regardless, they finished number one, they have to debunk the curse, and in truth, they probably aren’t the tournament’s best team.

Quarterfinal matches: Thursday, at Jaguares, 8:00 p.m. ET; Sunday, at Santos, 7:00 p.m. ET

Recent meetings: Santos 1-0 Jaguares (Jan. 2012), Santos 1-2 Jaguares (Nov. 2011), Jaguares 2-2 Santos (Nov. 2011), Jaguares 3-2 Santos (Sep. 2011), Jaguares 1-2 Santos (Jan. 2011)

#2 Monterrey (32 points) vs. #7 Tijuana (28 points)

Most would contend Monterrey is the best team in this tournament. Long regarded as the most talented team in Mexico, the Rayados just completed their second-straight CONCACAF Champions League triumph. If there was any fear that result would cause them to flick it in neutral for league, it was alleviated by their second place finish.

They’ve got an easy first round matchup. Tijuana started the Clausura strong but evened out through the last half of qualification. They finished with the league’s best defense (allowing only 11 goals in 17 matches), but their 18 goals scored are four less than any other Liguilla qualifier.

This being their first postseason, it’s difficult to see them getting past a team of Monterrey’s pedigree, but talent won’t be enough. After all, Cruz Azul – also regarded as one of the league’s most talented squads – didn’t even make the playoffs.

Quarterfinal matches: Wednesday, at Tijuana, 10:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, at Monterrey, 9:00 p.m. ET

Recent meetings: Tijuana 1-0 Monterrey (Jan. 2012), Monterrey 4-2 Tijuana (Aug. 2011)

#3 Club América (32 points) vs. #6 Pachuca (28 points)

Club América blew a two goal lead on their final match to lose the second seed. As a result, they face Pachuca instead of Tijuana, an opponent few would prefer.

But as evidenced on Sunday, América has a trump card. Christian Benítez might be the best attacker in the region. In this weekend’s Clasico Joven, he scored twice within the first 13 minutes (though missed what would have been a game-winning penalty kick). His double left him with a league-leading 14 goals.

Unfortunately, he was bit of a one-man gang. While he led the league in goals, the rest of his team only scored 16.

It’s difficult to see Pachuca winning if they can’t slow down Chucho.

Quarterfinal matches: Wednesday, at Pachuca, 9:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, at América, 7:00 p.m. ET

Recent meetings: América 1-0 Pachuca (Feb. 2012), Pachuca 2-0 América (Aug. 2011), América 0-2 Pachuca (Jan. 2011)

#4 Morelia (31 points) vs. #5 Tigres (31 points)

Tigres rode incredible defending to win the Apertura, allowing only 1 goal through the Liguilla. It would be a mistake to doubt the resourcefulness of Morelia’s Miguel Sabah and Rafael Marquez Lugo, though Monarcas’ defense will need to make every goal count.

Just like superliders, Tigres have history to defy. The last time a team won consecutive tournaments was 2004 when Pumas won the calendar year’s Clausura and Apertura. No team has won both tournaments within a single season since the two short tournament-format was adopted 16 years ago.

Quarterfinal matches: Thursday, at Tigres, 10:00 p.m. ET; Sunday, at Morelia, 9:00 p.m. ET

Recent meetings: Tigres 4-1 Morelia (Mar. 2012), Morelia 2-0 Tigres (Oct. 2011), Morelia 0-3 Tigres (Apr. 2011)

Report: FIFA president Infantino in hot water

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The more things at FIFA change, the more they stay the same.

According to a bombshell report from The Guardian, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was under investigation by the FIFA Ethics Committee before the president disbanded the committee in May. The report states that Infantino spent around $1.16 million on his election campaign, despite declaring publicly he had only spent around $583,000 on flights around the world to meet with national FA presidents.

The report claims Infantino was also being investigated by then committee chairman Cornel Borbely over whether he influenced the election of a new president in the Confederation of African Federations, or CAF.

FIFA rules state that presidential candidates must declare campaign expenditures publicly.

The latest bad press on FIFA follows the arrest of Spanish Football Federation president and UEFA vice president Angel Maria Villar and his son among other national and regional officials on charges of corruption and improper management.

Villar appeared in court on Thursday, and a judge denied he and his son bail.

Transfer Rumor Wrap: Liverpool rejects Barca bid for Coutinho, Roma offer for Mahrez turned down

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Liverpool isn’t planning on cashing in on one of the Premier League’s stars this summer.

Jurgen Klopp and Co. gave Barcelona a resolute “no” after Barcelona submitted a transfer bid of more than $93 million for Philippe Coutinho. Coutinho signed a new five-year contract with the club in January.

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“The main thing I think about is how we can make the next step with the players we had last season,” Klopp told reporters in Hong Kong earlier this week. “The good news is that actually we didn’t lose – and we will not lose – a player we want to keep this summer. That’s the best news actually and then we’ll see who can bring into the squad.”

Coutinho signed for Liverpool in 2013 but had a breakout year in 2015-2016, earning the PFA Young Player of the Year. Last year Coutinho became an even more consistent goal-scorer and playmaker, scoring 13 goals with seven assists in 34 Premier League appearances.

Keeping Coutinho is of supreme importance for Liverpool, which is back in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.

(more…)

La Liga releases schedule: First El Clasico coming in December

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It’s Christmas in July for fans of La Liga Friday as the Spanish league published its schedule for the upcoming season.

Defending champions Real Madrid travel to Deportivo La Caruña on August 20, the opening match of the season while its rival Barcelona hosts Real Betis.

As it’s La Liga, the first date most fans searched for was the first El Clasico of the season, and the biennial battles between Real Madrid and Barcelona will take place on December 20 and May 6, with Real Madrid hosting the first match.

The first match comes just ahead of the Spanish winter break, while the second match comes at a busy period at the end of the season, where both teams will be hoping to still be competing in the UEFA Champions League.

Other interesting matches to keep an eye on in the first few weeks of the season include Real Madrid hosting Valencia in week two, the Barcelona derby between Barca and Espanyol in week three and Atletico Madrid taking on Sevilla in week six.

Here’s a look at this year’s La Liga schedule.

Conte: Costa “situation was very clear” in January

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At this point, there is no doubt Diego Costa‘s future lies away from London and Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte broke his silence on the Brazilian-born Spain international striker, saying he’s been ready to move on from Costa since January, when Costa and Conte had a disagreement following a big-money offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian during the winter transfer window.

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“I don’t like to talk about players who are not here but the only thing I can tell you [is that] in January, the Costa situation was very clear, for the club for him and his agent,” Conte told reporters Friday. “For me the situation is closed.”

It’s an amazing turn of events after Costa scored 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-2017 season, including 14 goals through the end of December. But after falling out with Jose Mourinho a year earlier, the same issue happened again under Conte, with Costa proving much less effective down the stretch.

But Conte and Costa were able to put their differences aside on the field, photographed multiple times hugging after wins, as well as after winning the title.

Costa is reportedly now agitating for a move back to his former club Atletico Madrid, but the Spanish club’s transfer ban until the next window complicates matters. In a World Cup year, would Costa be willing to sit out half a season just to leave Chelsea?

If Costa’s time in the Premier League is up, he’ll go down as one of the league’s best pound-for-pound goalscorers. He scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances, with seven more cup goals in his three-year spell at Chelsea.

And if he is gone, defenders across the Premier League will sure be happy to wave goodbye.