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Finalists Toluca, Tijuana hope surprise Liga MX campaigns end with title

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Club Tijuana made life difficult on themselves, bringing a 2-0 deficit to León back to Estadio Caliente ahead of Sunday’s final leg of their Liga MX semifinal. Thankfully for the league’s Cinderella story — a fairy tale that’s evolved over the last two years — it only took 68 minutes for Fidel Martínez and Dubier Riascos to put them back on course. When substitute Ricard Ruiz put the tie out of reach with a late goal, Tijuana was in their first Primera Division final.

The weight of the occasion wasn’t lost on Xolos.

“It’s really a great feeling for the group,” striker Alfredo Moreno said after the game. “We wanted it. We wanted to be in the final, and it showed in the game. We’re very happy.”

“[T]hey played a superior match from beginning to end,” head coach Antonio Mohamed said of his players. “[It] was 3-0, but it would have been five or six.”

The only misgiving for fans of the league was seeing the league’s northern-most club, in only their third tournament since being promoted last summer, had to go through another recently elevated squad to make the final. León, the five-time league champions who had spent 10 years in the second division moving up this summer, saw their Cinderella story end within sight of the border.

That they, along with Tijuana, spent the season at the top of the table made the Apertura as an indictment of Mexico’s promotion-relegation policies. Each summer, only one team is promoted into the 18-team first division, and since the Ascenso uses a spring playoff to decide the new Liga MX club, there’s no guaranteed that the best team will move up. Club León had to go through five failed playoffs before winning their return to the Primera, and the team that won this season’s second division Apertura (Necaxa, by seven points), was eliminated Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s Dorado in that Liguilla’s semifinals.

Had Tijuana met León in the Primera’s final, it would have been vindication for all the second division clubs struggling to make it through Mexico’s bottleneck. Instead Toluca, the qualification stage champions, made it though, holding off a ferocious América comeback on Sunday to win 3-2, reaffirmed the surprise nature of this season’s opening tournament.

In recent seasons, the Apertura has been the more difficult to Mexico’s two tournaments, and in that sense, it’s also been more predictable. Teams at full strength coming off of a summer’s rebuilding came concentrate on the domestic competition. Come the Clausura, teams will devote attentions to CONCACAF’s Champions League and Copa Libertadores, often merely trying to survive the qualification stage with the hopes of being able to concentrate on the Liguilla. Monterrey, two-time defending confederation champions, have won two of the last three Aperturas but, as they’ve driven toward their CONCACAF titles, have been unable to win a Clausura.

That Toluca, who had not been a factor since Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was in charge, finished first was a surprise, albeit one fans had 17 rounds to get used to. Under Chepo, Toluca won two titles from 2008-2010 before losing their coach to Mexican national team. De la Torre’s successors — Sergio Lugo, Héctor Eugui, and Wilson Graniolatti — had failed to return Toluca to the postseason, let alone significance. Though the Diablos Rojos have won 10 league titles, few thought they’d get their chance at a record-tying 11th this soon.

It took another of Liga MX’s most renown coaches, Enrique Meza, to get the Red Devils back on track. In two previous spells with Toluca, Meza won three of his four career titles. More recently, Meza spent six tournaments at Cruz Azul but failed to make a final, something he achieved in his first tournament back in Toluca.

“I do not play, I just run the team,” Meza said, asked if his experience will be an advantage against Tijuana after his team eliminated América.

His team, however, retains 10 players who won at least one title under de la Torre. Sinha, the team’s captain, has been with the club since Meza’s first tenure in Toluca. And let’s not forget those 10 titles. While both finalists qualify as surprises, one team has certainly been here before. Tijuana still carries the aura of upstarts.

Come Sunday, that upstarts’ aura could be gone. Then, Xolos will be at Toluca, having hosted the Red Devils in Thursday’s first leg at Estadio Caliente. If they show the same focus that brought them back from two down to León, Mexico will have a new, first-time Champion. If not, Toluca will tie Chivas for the most titles in Mexican history.

Emre Can back in the Liverpool side ahead of Europa clash vs. Villarreal

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Emre Can of Liverpool battles for the ball with Idrissa Gana of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Villa Park on February 14, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Emre Can has recovered from an ankle injury and will be in Liverpool’s squad for their Europa League semifinal against Villarreal on Thursday night.

The German international has not played since April 14 when he was forced off in the Reds’ wild 4-3 win over Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool prepping for Villarreal ]

Giving his team update on Wednesday, manager Jurgen Klopp said Can is back in the team, although captain Jordan Henderson is still out. The Reds enter the second leg trailing 1-0 on aggregate.

Another positive note out of Melwood was the return of Danny Ings to first-team training. The 23-year-old striker signed with Liverpool last summer, but managed just eight appearances before having his season end to a torn ACL in October. Ings is still far away from his full return, but it was a good sight to see him back on the pitch and making progress in his recovery.

Disappointed Pellegrini rues lack of offense in Man City’s loss to Real

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City reacts during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images )
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Manchester City put in an uninspired performance against Real Madrid on Wednesday, losing the match 1-0 and falling out of the UEFA Champions League.

[ RECAP: Real Madrid 1-0 Man City ]

The match was decided by just one goal, but the scoreline was flattering to City as they failed to create any kind of real chances at the Bernabeu. Over the two legs, City managed just two shots on target.

While City were wildly disappointing in the second leg, manager Manuel Pellegrini did not think the match was that one-sided, saying both teams struggled on the attack.

I am disappointed because I think that was a very close game with two teams who did not create many chances. The two teams were working with no-one making a difference.

It is not the best thing changing a defender very early but I don’t think we had any problems in defence, we had problems creating, same as Real Madrid. They did not create many chances.

Real Madrid was not in top form, but they still could have scored three or four goals on Wednesday. Joe Hart had to come up with some big saves to keep things close, as the England goalkeeper was by far City’s most valuable player throughout the tie.

[ MORE: Liverpool preparing for Europa League match vs. Villarreal ]

The absence of David Silva through injury certainly hurt City’s attack, but there was very little service moving forward from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Yaya Toure. The poor play in the midfield left Sergio Aguero stranded alone up top, nearly invisible in the second leg.

Without service, Aguero was forced to track back to try and find the ball himself, leaving City no options to hit on the counter. For a tie between two of the most expensive teams in the world, neither side was truly impressive, but City surely disappointing.

Real Madrid 1-0 (1-0, agg.) Manchester City: Lackluster Citizens bow out of UCL

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Gael Clichy of Manchester City and Gareth Bale of Real Madrid challenge for posession during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images )
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  • Kompany lasts just nine minutes
  • Fernando scores own goal
  • Real headed to 14th UCL final

Ninety minutes came and went but Manchester City never showed up, losing to Real Madrid 1-0 and bowing out of the UEFA Champions League in the semifinals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

Fernando’s own goal in the first half was enough to send Real to a record 14th Champions League final, while City must now shift their focus back to the Premier League.

The Champions League final on May 28 will be a rematch of the 2014 final, a Madrid derby between Real and Atletico.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The match got off to a brutal start for Manchester City as Vincent Kompany lasted just nine minutes before going down with a thigh injury. The Belgian center-back has been plagued by muscle injuries all season and Manuel Pellegrini was forced to make an early substitution, bringing in Eliaquim Mangala to replace his captain.

Real Madrid would find the tie’s first goal in the 20th minute, although it would come off the foot of City’s Fernando. Gareth Bale streaked in from the right wing and tried to play a cross into the box, but his attempt deflected off of a sliding Fernando and sailed into the top corner at the far post. Originally given to Bale, it was later ruled an own goal.

Real thought they had a second when Pepe put the ball in the back of the net off a scramble in the box, but the defender was correctly ruled offside as City remained just a goal behind.

It took nearly the entire first half, but City finally created a chance in the 44th minute. Fernandinho found himself upfield and took a pass from Kevin De Bruyne towards the box. The Brazilian cut onto his right foot and fired a shot on goal, but it hit the outside of the post and deflected wide.

[ RELATED: Has Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern Munich been a failure? ]

After the break it was more Madrid pressure, with Joe Hart making a massive stop on Luka Modric just minutes into the second half to keep City alive. Gareth Bale also saw a header rattle off the crossbar as Real continued to control the match.

Just one goal would put City through to the final, but Pellegrini’s side never threatened Keylor Navas, registering just one shot on target. In City’s biggest match in recent history, they were simply not good enough as they must now focus on a top-four finish in England.

Vincent Kompany forced off just nine minutes into Man City’s UCL semi

MADRID, ENGLAND - MAY 04: Pepe of Real Madrid checks on the injured Vincent Kompany of Manchester City  during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Vincent Kompany managed just nine minutes in Manchester City’s Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid before going down with a thigh injury.

The City captain pulled up around midfield and immediately went down, replaced by Eliaquim Mangala.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Real Madrid vs. Man City ]

Earlier this season in the Champions League, Kompany lasted just six minutes before leaving the pitch with a calf injury against Dynamo Kiev.

At 30-years-old, injuries have been Kompany’s biggest enemy this season, with the Belgian center-back managing just 13 starts in the Premier League.