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.

Club World Cup: Kashima beat Chivas 3-2, will meet Real Madrid

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AL AIN, United Arab Emirates (AP) Japanese side Kashima Antlers beat Chivas of Mexico 3-2 on Saturday, advancing to a semifinal against Real Madrid at the Club World Cup.

Ryota Nagaki canceled out Angel Zaldivar’s early goal for Chivas and Kashima took the lead when Serginho converted a penalty in the 69th minute.

Hiroki Abe assured the win with a goal in the 84th before Hugo Leonardo scored an own goal in stoppage time.

Kashima will play Madrid on Wednesday.

Madrid needed extra time to beat Kashima 4-2 in the 2016 final of the Club World Cup.

Also, Al Ain FC beat Esperance Sportive de Tunis 3-0, setting up the other semifinal with South American champion River Plate on Tuesday.

La Liga: Atleti pull level with Barcelona; Real two points back

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ SERIE A: Cristiano Ronaldo scores winner in his first Turin derby ]

Real Valladolid 2-3 Atletico Madrid

Despite a largely indifferent run of form from superstar Antoine Griezmann (just four goals in the first 15 games) to start the season, Atleti managed to hang around in the title race thanks to their league-best 12 goals conceded. Griezmann was always likely to experience something of a World Cup hangover before eventually breaking out and resuming regular service as one of La Liga’s most prolific goalscorers.

Saturday might have been Griezmann’s re-emergence, as the 2018 World Cup winner bagged a brace, including the game-winning goal in the 80th minute, to help Atleti to a 3-2 victory over Real Valladolid.

Nikola Kalinic put the visitors 1-0 ahead before halftime and Griezmann converted from the penalty spot to make it 2-0 as soon as the second half began, but a goal conceded followed by an own goal capped off a dreadful six-minute spell for Diego Simeone’s side. Griezmann was there to save the day, though, popping up at the right place at the right time when Valladolid failed to clear a corner kick and gave Los Rojiblancos three clear-cut chance from inside 10 yards.

Real Madrid 1-0 Rayo Vallecano

Real Madrid scored their game-winning goal nearly 70 minutes earlier than their capital rivals, but their victory wasn’t anymore comfortable as Santiago Solari’s side held on for dear life — and were out-shot 11-9 — by Rayo Vallecano.

Karim Benzema bagged the game’s only goal in the 13th minute before he was forced off with an ankle injury in the 77th minute. Madrid were without Gareth Bale due to an ankle injury of his own. Los Blancos will now depart for the United Arab Emirates where they’ll face Japanese side Kashima Antlers in the semifinals of the Club World Cup on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 1-0 Real Sociedad
Eibar 1-1 Valencia

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Sevilla v. Girona — 6 a.m. ET
Espanyol v. Real Betis — 10:15 a.m. ET
Huesca v. Villarreal — 12:30 p.m. ET
Levante v. Barcelona — 2:45 p.m. ET

Serie A: Ronaldo scores winner in his first Turin derby

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ PL PREVIEW: Liverpool v. Man United at Anfield; Chelsea, Arsenal in action ]

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Cristiano Ronaldo marked his Turin derby debut by scoring the game’s only goal, from the penalty spot, to extend Juventus’ winning streak to seven league games and open up an 11-point lead in the scudetto race.

Torino held strong for more than an hour, despite being forced to sub off starting goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in the 20th minute. It was Sirigu’s replacement, Salvador Ichazo, who gave away the penalty when he brought down Mario Mandzukic in the 70th minute. Ichazo nearly made the save to preserve the scoreless draw for the home side, but Ronaldo’s powerful strike got past the Uruguayan to take his season tally to 11 goals (to go with five assists) in 16 appearance in league play.

Inter Milan 1-0 Udinese

Inter ended a seven-game winless skid (all competitions) with a narrow home victory over Udinese. Luciano Spaletti’s side left it even later than Juve, waiting until the 76th minute before Mauro Icardi converted from the penalty spot.

Despite the prolonged period of poor results, Inter have a six-point lead on fourth-place AC Milan, who have yet to play this weekend, but have tumbled to 14 points back of the runaway leaders.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

SPAL v. Chievo — 6:30 a.m. ET
Fiorentina v. Empoli — 9 a.m. ET
Frosinone v. Sassuolo — 9 a.m. ET
Sampdoria v. Parma — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari v. Napoli — 12 p.m. ET
Roma v. Genoa — 2:30 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Gabriel Jesus puts Man City back on top of PL

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Robbie Earle braves it alone without Robbie Mustoe for this one, but is joined by members of NBC’s Premier League crew — Jen Calhoun, Mike Wolosz and Jorge Bustamante — to discuss Manchester City’s win over Everton (0:45), Tottenham’s last-gasp victory against Burnley (12:00) and hear from a true Bournemouth fan after their defeat to Wolves (19:15). Plus a look ahead to Liverpool v. Manchester United — can Jose Mourinho pull off one more special upset? (31:10)

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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