Get ready for the Liga MX final! Will Chivas win their 13th title and equal a historic record from archrivals Club America? Will Tigres somehow lift a championship with their third manager in charge since February?
Beginning with Thursday’s first leg at Tigres’ Estadio Universitario and wrapping up with Sunday’s second leg at Chivas’ Estadio Akron, this week will define the winners of the 2023 Clausura tournament. Here’s everything you need to know about the two finalists.
(Regular season: 3rd place, 10W-4D-3L)
How they got here
Momentum is crucial in the playoffs and nobody sprinted into the Liguilla in better form than Chivas. Charging into the postseason with a four-game winning streak, Los Rojiblancos then defeated not just one rival in the playoffs, but two through Atlas in the quarterfinal Clasico Tapatio and Club America in the semifinal Clasico Nacional.
It was all far from easy though for new manager Veljko Paunovic and Chivas’ signature all-Mexican roster. In the quarters, Chivas needed to bounce back from a 1-0 deficit in the first leg and sneaked into the next round with a higher seed tiebreaker after a 1-1 aggregate draw through the second leg. Against Club America in the semis, Chivas once again fell 1-0 in the first leg before roaring back in the second leg with a convincing 3-1 away win that put them up 3-2 on aggregate.
In an astonishingly quick time in his first-ever season as a Liga MX manager, Paunovic has made his team defensively rigid and organized in what has typically been a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation. There has been a noteworthy increase in confidence from the backline in 2023, and even when they’ve made errors, goalkeeper Miguel “Wacho” Jimenez has done an exceptional job with his countless highlight-worthy moments in net.
Against Club America in the semifinal second leg, Paunovic also showcased that he can be a canny tactician as well with a surprise 3-man defense that kept Liga MX leading goalscorer Henry Martin quiet.
And yet, Chivas often find themselves in narrow results with their manager that typically aims for pragmatism over risk. That strategy has worked overall this season but led to two 1-0 losses in the playoffs. Up top, the attack continues to feel like a work-in-progress for their coach that seems to still be unsure if he wants to utilize a true striker or a false nine. Things have improved with their aerial duels in the postseason, but they have also had persistent issues throughout the year when fighting for the ball in the air.
Who is their MVP?
Winger/forward Alexis Vega has been better during the playoffs, but attacking midfielder Victor Guzman appears due for a big performance. The 28-year-old, who has seven goals and two assists in Liga MX play since late January, does a bit of everything for Chivas with his playmaking, distribution and willingness to rack up shots when needed.
Credit should also be given to Jimenez in net. Despite a few head-scratching moments in 2023 that have earned him criticism, the goalkeeper has more than made up for those with a long list of dramatic saves that emerge in the final minutes of matches. In the playoffs, he’s averaging just one goal allowed per game.
What a title would mean for the club
A championship would mean a return to greatness for the Liga MX giants that have recently trudged and lumbered their way through disappointing seasons. It hasn’t been a lengthy time since their last league title in 2017 Clausura, but the last few years have felt like an eternity for the second-most successful Liga MX team that will finally be returning to a final again after their last championship season.
That “second-most successful” moniker would also go away if they were to defeat Tigres this week. With a title in hand, Chivas would equal the all-time Liga MX record of 13 championships that is held by their historic rivals Club America, who they just so happened to beat in the semifinal round.
A trophy would also cement further optimism about the new era for the club under Paunovic and technical director Fernando Hierro, both hired last October. Following the lengthy stretch without an appearance in the final and numerous staffing changes, both Paunovic and Hierro look to have the team headed in the right direction.
(Regular season: 7th place, 7W-4D-6L)
How they got here
This section should probably be renamed “They got here?” considering their rollercoaster season.
In early February and after just five games in charge for Diego Cocca, Tigres pulled a you’re not breaking up with me, I’m breaking up with you move after deciding to “terminate the working relationship” with their coach that had accepted a position with Mexico’s men’s national team.
Former Tigres player Marco Antonio “Chima” Ruiz took charge in his first game on Feb. 11, but after a lackluster nine-game stretch that ended with four consecutive Liga MX losses and poor attacking displays, Ruiz was then fired and replaced by Robert Dante Siboldi in April.
Siboldi is the third Tigres manager since February and the fourth since last November. And while slight improvements have been made under him, that hasn’t stopped the erraticness of the talent-heavy team that squeezed past Toluca (5-4 on aggregate) in the quarterfinals and slipped past crosstown rivals Monterrey (2-1 on aggregate) in the semifinals.
You can’t deny the experience and star power of the team that has marquee-name veterans like Nahuel Guzman, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Guido Pizarro, Luis Quiñones and several other highly capable players. At their best, they’re the most ruthless attacking team in Mexico that has a frightening amount of different tools and options at their disposal.
Siboldi continues to make adjustments in his job that he’s had for a little over a month, but what has helped Tigres is not being as ponderous as they once were with their possession in a 4-2-3-1 system (3-5-2 last Saturday). In the heart of the XI, they’ve been completely revitalized by the surging form of arguably the MVP of the playoffs so far: attacking midfielder Sebastian Cordova.
Tigres are a bit of a mess though and have yet to maintain any sort of consistency. Along with managerial changes, part of their problems are due to seasoned names like the 37-year-old forward Gignac that appear to be past their peak. In goal as well, the ostentatious and unpredictable nature of Guzman has gradually become a hindrance instead of a vital X-factor.
Who is their MVP?
In an imposing roster filled with superstars, their MVP is someone that might not even break into the list of their top seven most skilled players.
Cordova, an unexpected hero with a goal in all five of Tigres’ playoff games this season, has been a key reason as to why they’re alive in the race for a title. The 25-year-old Mexico international has been sensational in May with not only his goalscoring, but also his passing in the final third.
Gignac should also be given a shout-out, regardless of his waning powers. Even with his decrease in pace and finishing, his talents remain far superior to that of a majority of strikers in the league. There’s no indication that he’ll be leaving Tigres soon, but considering his age and the need to redevelop Tigres’ squad, this could possibly be one of the French star’s last opportunities to earn an impressive fifth Liga MX championship with the team.
What a title would mean for the club
It would be another example of the growing power in modern Mexican soccer from a Nuevo Leon club up north. Often living in the shadows of traditional giants like Club America and Chivas, big-spending teams like Monterrey and Tigres have taken the spotlight away in the 21st century through their star-studded rosters, trophies, and passionate fanbases.
Although both haven’t reached the same level just yet when it comes to total Liga MX trophy counts, progress is being made, and especially by Tigres. While Tigres currently have seven league championships in hand — in comparison to Club America’s 13 and Chivas’ 12 — four of those have been picked up within just the last 10 years.
If a seventh-placed Tigres that have had three managers this season can lift a title, imagine what a more strengthened team with a concrete coaching plan could look like going forward.