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.

Report: Chicharito talks heating up with Los Angeles FC

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We’ve seen MLS teams make major splashes in the past, and one of next year’s newcomers could be a really big draw if they can manage to seal the deal on a Mexican international.

[ MORE: Schweinsteiger shares thoughts on MLS and more in interview ]

According to Metro New York, Los Angeles FC is continuing its talks with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez about a potential deal that would prove massive in terms of MLS spending.

While LAFC won’t debut in MLS until 2018, the club could potentially make the Mexico striker the highest-paid player in league history with an average salary of roughly $10 million.

The 28-year-old Hernandez currently plays in Germany with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, where he’s plied his trade since joining the club during the 2015/16 season.

Additionally, the former Manchester United man has dominated the international scene for El Tri, scoring 46 goals in 90 appearances for the CONCACAF nation.

Report: Bayern Munich scouted Walker, Alexis this weekend

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German publication Kicker says Bayern Munich technical director Michael Reschke attended both of this weekend’s FA Cup semifinals and had his eye on two players in particular.

Reschke apparently wants to bring players from both North London Derby rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to the Allianz Arena.

[ MORE: Liverpool’s Top Four plight ]

In the case of Spurs, that man is right back Kyle Walker. The 26-year-old has also played right mid in 8 of his 35 matches for Tottenham this season, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year. It’s hard to believe Spurs would have interest in selling Walker, who would help fill the role of retiring Philipp Lahm.

On the other side is Alexis Sanchez, the embattled but electric Arsenal attacker who Arsene Wenger described as an “animal” and “always ready to kill the opponent” this weekend. Wenger says Sanchez isn’t going anywhere, but Bayern does boast Chilean teammate Arturo Vidal and former Barca mate Thiago Alcantara.

Walker is signed at Spurs through 2021, while Sanchez’s contract ends after next season.

Roma lands sporting director Monchi, a reported Arsenal target

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AS Roma has found its new sporting director, and it’s a man with a keen eye for talent.

Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez Verdejo, 48, has spent the last 18 years as the sporting director at Sevilla, which won five UEFA Europa League titles under his watch.

Monchi was discussed in the media as a target for the same job at Arsenal and was a target for other Premier League clubs, but Roma sealed the deal with the former goalkeeper.

[ JPW: Oriol Romeu — The Perfectly Poised Destroyer ]

He is considered to have a big role in discovering and developing Sergio Ramos, Jesus Navas, and Dani Alves.

Read more from ASRoma.com.

Liverpool’s murky Top Four path depends on Manchester United

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Liverpool is a historic club with incredible presence. Jurgen Klopp is a celebrated manager with a strong reputation as a players’ coach.

Those two facets will always make the club attractive to players. Missing out on the UEFA Champions League is another thing altogether and would put a huge dent in Klopp’s ambitious recruitment goals.

And right now, the Reds look destined to drop out of the Top Four.

[ JPW: Oriol Romeu — The Perfectly Poised Destroyer ]

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Chelsea 32 24 3 5 65 27 38 13-0-2 11-3-3 75
 Tottenham Hotspur 32 21 8 3 68 22 46 15-2-0 6-6-3 71
 Liverpool 34 19 9 6 70 42 28 11-4-2 8-5-4 66
 Manchester City 32 19 7 6 63 35 28 8-6-1 11-1-5 64
 Manchester United 32 17 12 3 50 24 26 7-9-1 10-3-2 63
 Everton 34 16 10 8 60 37 23 12-4-1 4-6-7 58
 Arsenal 31 17 6 8 63 40 23 10-3-2 7-3-6 57

Even if Manchester United and Manchester City draw Thursday’s derby, both will be poised to pass the Reds by winning the match-in-hand.

Injury-ravaged United is bothered by UEFA Europa League duty against Celta Vigo, and has a brutal run-in that includes Spurs and Arsenal in addition to City. Liverpool has to hope United falls off, because Man City is likely going to walk over the Top Four line even with a draw in the derby.

The worst case scenario for Liverpool, aside from continuing to flail against clubs outside the Top Seven, is United toppling City on Thursday.

As an aside, it’s extremely unlikely that Arsenal leaps into the fray but if the Gunners did it would come at the expense of United.

Really, Liverpool’s run-in is perfectly built for two of its supporters’ favorite things: Winning matches and rooting against Manchester United. Here’s how they finish:

May 1 — at Watford
May 7 — vs. Southampton
May 14 — at West Ham United
May 21 — vs. Middlesbrough

Liverpool battered Watford 6-1 at Anfield and Boro 3-0 at the Riverside Stadium, but drew both Saints and West Ham earlier this season in addition to losing to Southampton in an EFL Cup semifinal.

Say the Reds nab a perfect 12 points to finish with 78; They’ll need City to take less than 14 from six remaining matches and United to earn less than 15 from six. The latter is far more likely than the former, but will matter very little if Klopp can’t motivate and organize his men in the final four matches.