By Tom Marshall

The semi-finals of the Mexican playoffs are set in stone after a couple of games that may compete with the North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham for “Game of the Weekend” award.

Pumas beat Cruz Azul

Cruz Azul, the best team in Mexico with the most points, most goals scored and least goals conceded in the general standings, were knocked out of the playoffs in the quarter finals Saturday after losing 3-2 on aggregate to fellow Mexico City side Pumas of UNAM.

Jan 25, 2010 - Mexico City, Mexico - Soccer game between Pumas of UNAM and Cruz Azul, where they tied 0-0. En encuentro entre Pumas de la UNAM y la Maquina del Cruz Azul, donde empataron 0-0.

Holding onto a 2-1 victory from the first leg in Pumas Estadio Olímpico Universitario, Cruz Azul were heavy favorites knowing that only a 2 goal or more defeat would see them get knocked out. To put the gargantuan task Pumas had to face into perspective, Cruz Azul won all eight of their home games in the regular season, conceding only three goals. As can happen with playoff tournaments that are, in effect, knockout competitions, teams can have an off day and bang, they’re out. That’s exactly what happened to Cruz Azul.

Pumas snuck a goal within two minutes and suddenly Cruz Azul knew they were in for a fight in front of their own fans. By halftime they’d had a man sent off, were a goal down and had two other players substituted with injuries (including national team midfielder Gerardo Torrado). In the second half, Pumas pressed for the second and came close on a number of occasions. Dropping back with nine men behind the ball, it appeared that Cruz Azul might just hang on. Then more misfortune. The referee called a penalty for Pumas for a handball. It was a decision which could’ve gone either way. To rub salt in Cruz Azul wounds, Juan Cacho stepped up to convert the penalty. Cacho was a product of Cruz Azul’s youth system.

Fair play to Pumas though. They were determined, efficient and made the most of the opposition’s crumbling luck and lack of zip. Scrapping for their place in the playoffs in the last few weeks has obviously done them no harm. They came into the liguilla battle-hardened. Cruz Azul, on the other hand, qualified some weeks ago and perhaps couldn’t find that extra gear in the second half Saturday. Questions about how just it is that Cruz Azul lost their first home game of the season and were dumped out will be asked. But for non Cruz Azul fans and the game in Mexico, this game was a great example of the playoff system at its best whether you agree with it or not.

America teach “little brother” a few basic lessons

The Águilas of América soared imperially in the Estadio Azteca on Saturday evening dishing out a masterclass to a San Luis team that defensively were all over the place. Following a stale 0-0 draw in San Luis in the first leg, America won 4-1 and coach Manuel Lapuente was lapping up the applause on the touchline as the fourth went in. All season the coach has been angered by questions about how defensively minded his America team is. For most teams it wouldn’t matter but this is America and there past tells them they have to not just win, but win well.

Of course, San Luis is owned by the same Televisa television company and suspicions of corruption linger in the press. The theory goes that for gate receipts and general interest in the liguilla it’s more financially rewarding for América to advance and somewhere in the corridors of “fútbol” power shady deals are done to make sure the result goes the right way.

The accusations have to be taken with a pinch of salt and on the field though it was clear that América were dominant and could be hitting form at the right time. With América’s Argentine midfielder Daniel “Rolfi” Montenegro back and ready for the semi finals, no one will fancy facing them.

Monterrey survive scare to put Pachuca to the sword in epic clash

Played out in 30 degree Centigrade (90 degrees Farenheit) in Monterrey’s Sunday afternoon sun it would’ve been easy to predict a languid affair. What a game this was played out in front of a packed house in Monterrey’s Tecnólogico Stadium with the city’s famous Cerro de la Silla (Horse Saddle) mountain providing the backdrop.

Chilean Humberto Suazo scored a goal worthy of the setting after slaloming his way through the Pachuca defense and slotting home on 18 minutes. Pachuca needed to win after Thursday’s 1-1 draw in Pachuca and the early goal could’ve killed them.
Pachuca weren’t giving this up though and equalized via the head Colombian Franco Arizala seven minutes later after a fine ball by Argentine Damian Manso. Then, on 36 minutes, Aldo De Nigris tapped in after a fine passing move from Monterrey. Going into halftime at 2-1 to Monterrey, the game appeared all but over.

Pachuca came out and pushed for the goal they needed to tie the game and make Monterrey nervous. They hit the post and they looked dangerous. Then on a rapid counter attack in the 57th minute, Monterrey struck again. Game. Set. Match.

Pachuca had other ideas though and refused to go out ignominiously, continuously pressing for the three goals they needed. Arizala scored on 84 minutes and then again on 89. Monterrey fans were extremely nervous as Pachuca put their giant goalkeeper Miguel Calero upfront to try and win balls pumped into the box for the four minutes of injury time.
In the end, it wasn’t enough but Pachuca leave the Apertura 2010 with their heads held high. It’s worth remembering that if it was a Champions League game, they would’ve progressed on away goals. In the Mexican league it is decided by final position in the general standings.

Monterrey, as we have become accustomed, are an extremely dangerous team. The Suazo/De Nigris striking partnership is looking ominous. Last time the duo really got their scoring act together, Monterrey won the Apertura 2009. With Cruz Azul out the way, they are now favorites to lift the trophy but they’ll need to tighten up the defense. In their last three home games they’ve conceded ten goals.

Santos and Jaguares bore

Like chalk and cheese, the second leg of the Santos v Jaguares series on Sunday was a stale game settled by a last minute penalty for Santos. Requiring a win after a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Jaguares pressed but failed to break down the Santos defense. The home fans booed at 0-0 even though their team was set to get through.

Perhaps the highlight of the game was the haircuts of the Jaguares players; multicolored in the style of the cat they are named after.

Semi-finals (times and dates not 100 % confirmed):

Pumas v Monterrey (Wed, Nov 24 @ 9 p.m. in Estadio Olimpico, Mexico City)

America v Santos (Thurs, Nov 25 @ 9 p.m. in Estadio Azteca, Mexico City)

Return legs:

Monterrey v Pumas (Saturday, Nov 27 @ 7 p.m. in Tecnologico, Monterrey)

Santos v America (Sun, Nov 28 @ 6 p.m. in Estadio Corona, Torreon)