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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.

Champions League field set: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Leroy Sane of Manchester City (R) shoots from a freekick during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester City FC and Celtic FC at Etihad Stadium on December 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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We have to wait until Monday for the draw, but the field is set for the UEFA Champions League’s knockout rounds.

Seeded
Arsenal
Atletico Madrid
Barcelona
Napoli
Monaco
Leicester City
Juventus
Borussia Dortmund

[ MORE: Examining Leicester, Man City ]

Unseeded
Paris Saint-Germain
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Benfica
Bayer Leverkusen
Porto
Sevilla
Real Madrid


Premier League scenarios

Who can the three remaining clubs from England’s top flight face in the first knockout round?

Arsenal: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Porto, Sevilla, Real Madrid.

Leicester City: Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla, Real Madrid.

Manchester City: Atletico Madrid, Napoli, Monaco, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund

As for Tottenham Hotspur, they are set to be seeded in the Europa League’s Round of 32.


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UEFA Champions League wrap: BVB stuns Real late, Spurs onto Europa

Tottenham's Harry Kane, 2nd right, is congratulated by his teammates after scoring his side's 2nd goal during the Champions League group E soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and CSKA Moscow at Wembley stadium in London, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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The knockout round draw is just days away, and we finally have the 16 teams who remain in the chase for the UEFA Champions League title.

[ MORE: Examining Leicester, Man City ]

Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 CSKA Moscow

Mauricio Pochettino‘s men came out of the gates hard at Wembley, which made it all the more surprising when Alan Dzageov gave CSKA a surprise 1-0 lead.

No fear, a dangerous Dele Alli was rewarded with a goal before Harry Kane made it 2-1 by halftime. And CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev recalled the last World Cup by pushing an Alli header in for an own goal.

Porto 5-0 Leicester City

The hosts needed this one, and a much-weakened Leicester City did not.

Riyad Mahrez and Robert Huth weren’t in the 18, and Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton all started on the bench.

That made it a bit easier for Porto to strike, and Andre Silva, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, and Yacine Brahimi gave the Portuguese side a healthy three-goal lead at the break. Silva added a second in the second half, this time from the spot.

Real Madrid 2-2 Borussia Dortmund

Karim Benzema scored a pair of goals, the second on a picture-perfect cross from James Rodriguez, as the reigning champs looked set for seeded status for the first knockout round.

But Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang made it 2-1 and Cristiano Ronaldo dinked a surefire insurance goal off the far post with 12 minutes to go. Aubameyang then found a sliding Marco Reus in the 88th minute to give Thomas Tuchel’s a share of the lead and the capture of the group.

Elsewhere

Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 Monaco
Juventus 2-0 Dinamo Zagreb
Legia Warsaw 1-0 Sporting CP
Lyon 0-0 Sevilla
Club Brugge 0-2 Copenhagen

All said, Juventus and Sevilla clinch knockout round berths, while Spurs, Legia Warsaw, Copenhagen and Lyon head to the Europa League.

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Champions League AT HALF – Leicester, Dortmund trail; Spurs lead (video)

Real Madrid's Henrico Casemiro, center right, jumps for a high ball during the Champions League, Group F, soccer match between Real Madrid and Borrusia Dortmund at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
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CONCACAF is representing in the UEFA Champions League’s final group stage match day, with a Mexico star scoring and a USMNT teenager getting the start at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Porto 3-0 Leicester City

Andre Silva isn’t hurting his transfer value, burying his third group stage goal against a weakened already-through Leicester. El Tri star Jesus Corona added to the advantage in the 25th minute, and Yacine Brahimi has the third.

Club Brugge 0-2 FC Copenhagen

The Danes are making a statement of intent, and will be hoping Leicester comes back against Porto.

Real Madrid 1-0 Borussia Dortmund

Christian Pulisic gets the start in a match where a draw would be enough for BVB to win the group. That’s not happening right now, as Karim Benzema beat his mark to a terrific 28th minute pass from Dani Carvajal.

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 CSKA Moscow

Spurs started dominant, only to go down after the half hour mark. Dele Alli pulled them level, and Harry Kane put ’em ahead. A loss puts them out of both the UCL and Europa League.

Elsewhere
Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 Monaco
Juventus 0-0 Dinamo Zagreb
Legia Warsaw 1-0 Sporting CP
Lyon 0-0 Sevilla

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LIVE – UCL group stage finale: Leicester, Tottenham both in action

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his sides first goal with team mates during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on November 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The final matchday of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League group stage takes place on Wednesday with two Premier League teams in action.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City is already through and has topped Group G with Claudio Ranieri‘s men securing a top spot for next Monday’s Round of 16 draw. The Foxes face FC Porto in Portugal with the hosts needing just a point to secure second place in the group and their spot in the last 16. Putting their Premier League worries aside, Leicester will aim to stay unbeaten throughout all six of their UCL group games.

Tottenham Hotspur wish they could say the same but Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have already crashed out of the Champions League with one game to go. They host CSKA Moscow at Wembley Stadium in Group E with Spurs needing just a draw to secure a place in the Europa League knockout stages. Bayer Leverkusen and AS Monaco has already qualified from Group E but Spurs’ Harry Kane insists they now want to go on and win the Europa League.

[ MORE: Permutations for each UCL group ]

Elsewhere Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund clash to decide top spot in Group F, while Juventus, Lyon and Sevilla are all still in the mix in Group H with the final game to come.

Below is a full schedule for Wednesday’s Champions League games, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

You can follow live commentary and stats of each game by clicking on the link above, while we will have reaction right here on ProSoccerTalk.


Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League schedule

Group E
Tottenham Hotspur vs. CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Monaco

Group F
Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund
Legia Warsaw vs. Sporting Lisbon

Group G
FC Porto vs. Leicester City
Club Brugge vs. FC Copenhagen

Group H
Juventus vs. Dinamo Zagreb
Lyon vs. Sevilla