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Liga MX playoffs previews and predictions: Can red-hot Pumas reach the final?

Only Atlas, Leon, Tigres and Pumas are left in the running for Liga MX’s 2021 Apertura title. With No. 1 seed Club America now out of the picture and title-holders Cruz Azul long gone in the wildcard round, this season’s Mexican first division championship is entirely up for grabs.

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Each semifinal matchup will consist of a home and away leg and, similar to the quarterfinal round, away goals are no longer a tiebreaker. If the aggregate score is still tied after two legs, the higher seed will go through to the Liga MX finals.

But which teams will emerge as final two?

Liga MX playoffs previews and predictions: Can red-hot Pumas reach the final?

First leg: Thursday, Dec. 2, 10 p.m. ET.
Second leg: Sunday, Dec. 5, 8 p.m. ET.

We should probably start with Atlas who are the highest seed left in the competition, though that would be a disservice to Pumas who are unquestionably the story of the Liga MX playoffs so far. Before sneaking into a playoff spot during the final weekend of the Apertura regular season, Pumas spent 15 of 16 matchdays outside that position. They were regularly dismal to watch and stumbled into the wildcard round as the playoff team with the worst away record.

They haven’t looked the same since. They upset Toluca with a 2-1 away win in the wildcard round and then in the quarterfinals, they stole all of the headlines in Mexico’s sports papers with a shocking 3-1 aggregate victory over rivals Club America.

As for Atlas, it hasn’t been as straightforward for the No. 2 seed. Their quarterfinal series against Monterrey was a cagey one that finished with a 1-1 aggregate result. Thanks to their higher seeding and a defensive approach, they were able to edge past Los Rayados and into the semis.

Cautiousness has been the go-to strategy for Atlas manager Diego Cocca, but it’s that exact pragmatism which saw Club America knocked out of the playoffs against a reinvigorated Pumas.

Key factors

It’s all about momentum and a literal change of pace for Pumas. Manager Andres Lillini is now throwing more numbers forward into attack and pressuring opponents who are often caught off-guard by how proactive they have become. Although their defense remains worrisome, they’ve countered those issues with nine goals in their last four matches.

For Atlas, it’s unlikely that Cocca will ditch his approach that prioritizes defensive organization. Expect a 5-3-2 formation that will aim to make this a tightly-contested battle. Barring some sort of multi-goal loss in the first leg at Pumas, Cocca won’t be afraid to keep things settled and defensively rigid in both matches.

Players to watch

If Atlas are planning to stick with their conservative 5-3-2, that then puts plenty of pressure on attacking players like Julio Furch and Julian Quinones to capitalize on their chances in the final third. In support, there will be an immense amount of responsibility for wing-backs Luis Reyes and Diego Barbosa, who will need to defend the flanks and help create plays going forward.

Keep an eye on Pumas’ Alan Mozo and Juan Dinenno as well. Mozo had a historic performance against Club America last weekend with three assists from right-back in the 3-1 away win. Up top, Dinenno is the focal point for Pumas’ frontline and a game-changer with his powerful headers.

Prediction

There’s much to be said about momentum in the playoffs, which is why Pumas should be earning a place in the Liga MX finals. They are unrecognizable from the group of players who kicked off the season with one win from their first 11 games. Unless Atlas and Cocca decide to mix things up with a more attacking style of play, they’ll likely be knocked out by Pumas’ intensity.

Liga MX playoffs previews and predictions: Can red-hot Pumas reach the final?Liga MX playoffs previews and predictions: Can red-hot Pumas reach the final?

First leg: Wednesday, Dec. 1, 10 p.m. ET.
Second leg: Saturday, Dec. 4, 10 p.m. ET.

Were it not for a late goal last Sunday from Tigres’ Carlos Salcedo, this could have easily been a preview for Leon vs. Santos Laguna. Instead, thanks to Salcedo’s powerful shot in the 82nd minute of the 1-0 win over Santos, Tigres avoided an early exit as the 2-2 aggregate scoreline was enough for a place in the semis due to their higher seeding.

But a star-studded team like Tigres, which has arguably the best roster in North America, shouldn’t be having complications at this stage of the playoffs. Looking back, they also shouldn’t be struggling with inconsistencies that have plagued them throughout the season. Tigres aren’t firing on all cylinders and, to an extent, Leon haven’t been at the top of their game either. While they should be praised for reaching the semifinals and finishing third in the regular season table, there’s a sense that Leon are capable of much more.

Some high-profile newcomers haven’t hit their stride yet, aging star Luis Montes has started to lose some of his impact and, elsewhere, a few members of the XI have been hit or miss. That said, the good news for Leon is that they had a strong finish in the previous playoff round. With mercurial winger Angel Mena leading the charge and goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota looking solid in net, Leon overcame a quarterfinal deficit and clinched a 3-2 aggregate win over Puebla.

Key Factors

With only 20 games under his belt for Tigres, manager Miguel “Piojo” Herrera hasn’t been able to fine-tune his approach. He is building a decent foundation, but it’s clear that he’ll need more time to implement his tactics and formation changes. Keeping that in mind, it’s no surprise that Tigres have relied on individual moments of brilliance from their marquee players thus far. We saw it from Salcedo in the quarterfinal second leg, and in the previous first leg, it was striker Andre-Pierre Gignac who kept them in the fight with a long-range golazo.

Maintaining the ball will be the difference for Leon. In an ideal scenario for manager Ariel Holan, Leon would dictate the pace of the game with a balanced approach that focuses on team cohesion and chemistry. Leon look the most comfortable when they have the majority of possession, which they’ll aim to hold on to and quickly win back from Tigres.

Players to watch

It’s all about Gignac for Tigres. Sure, we can talk about goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman or a crafty forward like Nico Lopez, but it’ll be Gignac as the imposing striker who will be expected to make the most of decisive opportunities. With a goal and an assist in his last two appearances, the French Olympian might be due for another standout performance.

For Leon, Mena could make or break this semifinal for his team. Often criticized for going absent in big games, the Ecuadorian silenced his doubters last weekend with two goals in Leon’s 2-0 win over Puebla. More could follow for the winger who has been highly active in the playoffs.

Prediction

This is going to be a close one, but it’ll be Leon in the end who earn a place in the Liga MX finals. Tigres are lucky to have avoided a calamitous defeat in the quarterfinals and, as mentioned earlier, it appears as though Herrera has yet to perfect his tactical approach with the team. Guided by Mena, Leon will narrowly squeeze into the final.

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