With two weeks to go in the Mexican Primera Division's Apertura season, here's where we stand in the battle for the eight playoff berths:
WHO'S IN: Cruz Azul, Monterrey and Santos Laguna -- Nos. 1, 2 and 3 nearly all season -- claimed spots during last week's "doble jornada"; the Cementeros are guaranteed a top-two seed, and Monterrey is on the verge of wrapping up the other.
So last week's showdown at Estadio Tecnologico was perhaps a title-series preview, and, in a small surprise, first-place Cruz Azul (11-2-2) romped to a 4-2 victory, handing the second-place Rayados (9-1-5) only their second defeat in 33 regular-season matches over 51 weeks. Cesar Villaluz, part of Mexico's 2005 U-17 World Cup-winning side, scored twice for the victors.
So ... who's the team to beat should both reach the final? Go with Monterrey, which won last year's Apertura. Cruz Azul has lost in the past two Apertura finals and in the past two CONCACAF Champions League finals.
SURE THINGS: Fourth-place San Luis (8-6-1) maintained command in Group 2, bouncing back from the midweek loss to America by beating Toluca on a pair of Michael Arroyo goals. It appears the Tuneros will survive a brutal finish to their schedule -- they finish this week against Santos and next week at Cruz Azul, but their magic number is one -- even if they won't hold off America for the group title. (And the caveat: the Clausura schedule is the same as the Apertura, with only home/away designations changing, so they'll finish the spring schedule against, yes, America, Toluca, Santos and Cruz Azul.)
America (6-3-6) is looking very good after a tough four-game stretch in which they failed to score in a loss at Cruz Azul and home draws with Monterrey and archrival Guadalajara. Daniel Montenegro scored in both wins last week, and games this week at Atlante and next week against Mexico City rival Pumas UNAM provide an opportunity to head into the postseason with a four-game winning streak.
UANL Tigres (6-4-5), so poor in last spring's Clausura, are four points ahead of the barrier, so a win at home Saturday against stumbling Morelia will send them through. A tie will probably do so, too. Monterrey's No. 2 club last week rallied for a 3-2 victory over Pachuca, on Damian Alvarez's 79th-minute goal, and went goal-less with Jaguares.
FIGHT FOR SEVENTH/EIGHTH: Seven clubs are in the race, but it will be tough to overcome seventh-place Jaguares and eighth-place Toluca (both 5-4-6), which have a two-point edge on Pachuca and Pumas (both 5-6-4), a three-point advantage on Guadalajara (3-3-9) and Gallos Blancos (5-7-3) and are four points ahead of Morelia (4-6-5).
Jaguares, from Chiapas, haven't conceded a goal in 328 minutes, posting successive shutouts against Pachuca, Morelia and Tigres. They've allowed just two goals in their past nine games -- that's 810 minutes -- but have been held without a goal four times in their last six outings. Both games last week were scoreless. That ought to be enough to get them into the Liguilla, especially with Atlas ahead, but anything more can't be expected.
Toluca has won just once since the end of September, and that against Puebla, and the Diablos Rojos have scored only three goals in their past six games, two of them on Zinha free kicks. A comfy closing schedule, at Estudiantes Tecos and home against Atlante, bodes well.
Pachuca, which is readying for December's FIFA Club World Cup (the high mark on its 2010 slate) might have the best shot of breaking through -- Saturday's showing at home against resurgent Gallos Blancos will be telling -- but don't count out Guadalajara. Chivas managed draws against America and Santos in its past two road games, and finishing up against Cruz Azul and Monterrey isn't as so bad, because neither has anything to play for aside from momentum.
DONE, OR NEARLY SO: Only Atlas and Estudiantes Tecos (both 3-9-3, both from Guadalajara) have been eliminated, but Puebla (4-6-3) and Atlante (4-8-3) are alive merely mathematically. Cancun's Atlante finally won back-to-back games, both on Johan Fano strikes, but the Potros needed that a few weeks ago.
LIGA DE ASCENSO: Club Tijuana (10-0-5) is the lone unbeaten pro team South of the Border. The Xolos clinched the Ascenso regular-season title -- and a berth in the Apertura semifinals -- as Gilberto Mora's 50th-minute strike beat visiting La Piedad, 1-0. Tijuana, which is as few as four games (but six months) from promotion to the Primera Division, notched its ninth shutout -- but only its second in the last seven games.
Second-place Veracruz (7-2-6) fell eight points back with two games to go following a stirring 4-3 defeat to fourth-place Indios de Ciudad Juarez (7-3-5), Tijuana's foe this weekend. Eduardo Lillingston, on loan to Indios from Chivas USA, scored his eighth and ninth goals of the campaign. Veracruz meets Tijuana at Caliente in the regular-season finale Nov. 14.
Alacranes de Durango (7-4-4) solidified its fifth-place standing with a 1-0 victory, on Eder Pacheco's league-best 13th goal, over Alibinegros de Orizaba (6-6-3), which dropped from sixth to seventh. ... Cuauhtemoc Blanco's Irapuato (7-6-2) halted a three-game skid and returned to the top seven. Luis Alberto Valdes tallied twice in the 2-1 triumph at Guerreros FC. ... Jared Borgetti's Leon (6-6-3), which spent five weeks at the bottom of the table, is on the verge of a postseason spot after moving up to eighth -- one spot out of the playoffs, trailing Albinegros on goal difference -- after a 1-0 win over Cruz Azul Hidalgo. ... Dorados de Sinaloa (5-5-5) was set to jump to seventh until Pedro Solis' stoppage-time goal pulled lowly Correcaminos even.
AMERICANS IN ACTION: Edgar Castillo came off the bench twice for San Luis, setting up Victor Lojero's tying goal -- which didn't hold -- against America. ... Jose Francisco Torres was back in Pachuca's lineup, starting in midfield in both Tuzos games last week, and fellow Texan Marco Antonio Vidal got the call on the backline, rather than his usual midfield post, in the loss to Tigres. Herculez Gomez came off the bench against Tigres, but couldn't score the equalizer. ... Riverside's Sammy Ochoa (Riverside Poly HS) got the start for Estudiantes Tecos in the midweek loss to Necaxa. ... Sacramento-born Miguel Angel Ponce, the clear U.S. MVP of the Apertura, was, as always, at left back in Guadalajara's draws.
Past week's games (home teams listed first)
Pachuca 2 (Cvitanich 45, pen. 57), UANL Tigres 3 (Acuņa 62, Lobos pen. 76, D. Alvarez 79)
Pumas UNAM 1 (Cacho 55), Atlas 1 (E. Pacheco 84)
Estudiantes Tecos 0, Necaxa 2 (Barbosa 22, E. Orozco 77)
Jaguares de Chiapas 0, Morelia 0
Puebla 0, Santos Laguna 1 (J. Estrada 67)
Guadalajara 0, Toluca 0
Atlante 1 (Fano 53), Gallos Blancos de Queretaro 0
Monterrey 2 (de Nigris 40, og Pineda 53), Cruz Azul 4 (A. Castro 31, Villaluz 33, 56, E. Villa 44)
San Luis 1 (Lojero 78), America 2 (Montenegro 68, Vuoso 85)
Cruz Azul 1 (C. Gimenez 80), Puebla 0
Gallos Blancos de Queretaro 2 (S. Blanco 24, Skoro 94+), Pumas UNAM (J. Cortes 90)
Santos Laguna 1 (C. Benitez 87), Guadalajara 1 (O. Arellano 89)
UANL Tigres 0, Jaguares de Chiapas 0
Atlas 1 (A. Moreno 28), Pachuca 2 (Manso 31, Cvitanich 73)
Morelia 0, Monterrey 2 (Carreņo 32, N. Cardozo 89)
Toluca 1 (Zinha 69), San Luis 2 (M. Arroyo 3, 53)
America 4 (D. Marquez 43, 84, V. Sanchez 45, Montenegro 47), Estudiantes Tecos 1 (Cejas 54)
Necaxa 1 (L. Perez 61), Atlante 2 (Amione 70, Fano 74)
Group 1: x-Monterrey 32 points, x-Santos 26, UANL Tigres 23, Guadalajara 18, Necaxa 16, Estudiantes Tecos 12
Group 2: San Luis 25 points, America 24, Toluca 21, Pachuca 19, Atlante 15, Atlas 12
Group 3: x-Cruz Azul 35 points, Jaguares 21, Pumas UNAM 19, Gallos Blancos 18, Morelia 17, Puebla 15
Overall (top 8): 1. x-Cruz Azul 35 (+19 goal difference), 2. x-Monterrey 32 (+12), 3. x-Santos 26 (+9), 4. San Luis 25 (+3), 5. America 24 (+6), 6. UANL Tigres 23 (+9), 7. Jaguares 21 (+6), 8. Toluca 21 (-). Playoffs: If season ended now, the top eight would qualify; x -- qualified
Relegation percentage: 1. Necaxa (15 games/16 points) 1.0667; 2. Gallos Blancos (49/57) 1.1633; 3. Atlas (83/97) 1.1687; 4. Atlante and Jaguares (83/98) 1.1807
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Toluca at Estudiantes Tecos, 7:10 p.m.
Atlas at Jaguares, 4 p.m.
Gallos Blancos at Pachuca, 6 p.m.
Morelia at UANL Tigres, 6 p.m.
Cruz Azul at Guadalajara, 6 p.m.
Santos Laguna at San Luis, 7:45 p.m.
America at Atlante, 8 p.m.
Necaxa at Pumas UNAM, 10 a.m.
Monterrey at Puebla, 10 a.m.
Schedule subject to change
1. Christian Benitez (Santos) 13
2. Humberto Suazo (Monterrey) 10
3. Johan Fano (Atlante) 9
4. Itamar Batista (UANL Tigres) 8
Sergio Blanco (Gallos Blancos) 8
Christian Gimenez (Cruz Azul) 8
7. Dario Cvitanich (Pachuca) 7
Gabriel Pereyra (Pubela) 7
Matias Vuoso (America) 7
10. Edgar Benitez (Pachuca) 6
Carlos Ochoa (Jaguares) 6
Javier Orozco (Cruz Azul) 6
LIGA DE ASCENSO
Past week's results (home teams listed first)
Altamira 3 (Castillejos 28, E. Gonzalez 50, Zatarain 69), Pumas Morelos 0
Leones Negros 1 (M. Zepeda 41), Atlante Neza 1 (S. Gonzalez 70)
Guerreros FC 1 (H. Gimenez 20), Irapuato 2 (L. Valdes 14, 47)
Veracruz 3 (Maz 5, Macaluso 42, Ahumada 54), Indios de Ciudad Juarez 4 (J. Echavarria 16, Lillingston 29, 44, J. Gomez 63)
Alacranes de Durango 1 (Eder Pacheco 5), Albinegros de Orizaba 0
Merida FC 0, Lobos BUAP 1 (M. Castillo 47)
Dorados de Sinaloa 2 (F. Flores 9, 60), UAT Correcaminos 2 (P. Solis 63, 91+)
Leon 1 (Santibaņez 50), Cruz Azul Hidalgo 0
Club Tijuana 1 (G. Mora 50), La Piedad 0
Standings: x-1. Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente 35 points, 2. Veracruz 27, 3. Lobos BUAP 26, 4. Indios de Ciudad Juarez 26, 5. Alacranes de Durango 25, 6. Irapuato 23, 7. Albinegros de Orizaba 21, 8. Leon 21, 9. Altamira 21, 10. Pumas Morelos 20, 11. Dorados de Sinaloa 20, 12. Guerreros FC 18, 13. Cruz Azul Hidalgo 16, 14. U de G Leones Negros 16, 15. La Piedad 15, 16. UAT Correcaminos 12, 17. Merida FC 10, 18. Atlante Neza 9
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Alacranes de Durango at Lobos BUAP, 2 p.m.
Leon at Pumas Morelos, 3 p.m.
Albinegros de Orizaba at Veracruz, 6 p.m.
Altamira at Irapuato, 6 p.m.
Club Tijuana at Indios de Ciudad Juarez, 7 p.m.
Merida at Correcaminos, 9 a.m.
Guerreros at Atlante Neza, 10 a.m.
Dorados de Sinaloa at Cruz Azul Hidalgo, 10 a.m.
Leones Negros at La Piedad, 2 p.m.
Schedule subject (and likely) to change
1. Eder Pacheco (Alacranes) 13
2. Juan Manuel Sara (Lobos BUAP) 10
3. Eduardo Lillingston (Indios) 9
4. Juan Manuel Cavallo (Albinegros) 8
Miguel Zepeda (Leones Negros) 8
6. Roberto Nurse (Cruz Azul Hidalgo) 7
Mauricio Romero (Veracruz) 7
Felipe Flores (Dorados) 7
Hector Gimenez (Guerreros) 7
Nelson Sebastian Maz (Veracruz) 7