Chivas are back in the hunt for famous league, cup double after Monterrey win
The Matias Almeyda project at Chivas marches on. On Wednesday, the team defeated Monterrey 2-1 at Estadio BBVA Bancomer to set up a Copa MX final date against Morelia on April 19 at Estadio Chivas. But this was not easy, or particularly pretty.
The early stages of Chivas' eventual semifinal victory were edge-of-the-seat entertainment for all the wrong reasons, at least from a Chivas perspective. Monterrey almost had the ball in the net after 20 seconds and swarmed the visitors' nervous-looking defense. A goal became an inevitability and the only real surprise was that it took Rogelio Funes Mori until the 22nd minute to put the home side ahead.
Almeyda fielded a side made up of a mixture of regular league starters and a couple of fringe elements like goalkeeper Miguel Jimenez, Miguel Ponce and Hedgardo Marin, and early on it looked like it would backfire. But after 90 minutes, it was the Chivas faithful celebrating and Monterrey's fans booing their team off the field after the Guadalajara side's victory.
This was a case of Chivas rolling up their sleeves, showing guts and taking risks. Almeyda is known for his attacking outlook and likes his team to play good football, but there was little of that aesthetically pleasing play on a pitch that is letting down the otherwise magnificent Estadio BBVA Bancomer.
Chivas seemed to take an age to come out for the second half and when they did, the game's pattern changed. Monterrey boss Antonio Mohamed seemed happy to cede possession, while Chivas' young team swarmed forward and took the initiative.
There are those who will argue Monterrey has such a depth of quality in its squad that it should've gone for the killer second goal instead of backing off. For a club that boosts one of the best group of players in Liga MX, Los Rayados are still failing to really click on the big occasions.
When former Tigres striker Alan Pulido pounced to equalize for Chivas in the 61st minute, Monterrey certainly seemed ill at ease in attempting to regain control. Instead, it was Chivas who continued their surge. Cesar Montes' loose tackle inside the penalty area gifted Chivas a penalty with eight minutes to go and Angel Zaldivar made no mistake from the spot.
"I'm very happy to reach another final," said Almeyda, who has already guided Chivas to two Copa MX finals (winning one) since taking over in September 2015. "It's the first that will be played in our stadium."
It was another target in Almeyda's project at Chivas and a reminder that the Guadalajara side is back as a main player in Mexican soccer for all the right reasons.
"What strikes me about the team is that every time Chivas play well and win, there isn't one player that stands out," said the manager, talking in his news conference after the win. "The 11 players stand out together and that is what we are looking for, with everyone important and doing their bit."
Back when Almeyda took over the Rebano Sagrado, they were fighting relegation and the manager struggled early on as the club sought to lift itself from its long depression.
From the club's ownership, Almeyda got the investment in the squad he demanded, with signings like Pulido, Rodolfo Pizarro, Orbelin Pineda and Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez creating real competition for places. But it is Almeyda's work on the training field that has given the club a clear playing philosophy, combined with the element of steel that was evident against Monterrey.
Fans in Jalisco will eagerly look forward to the April 19 final and Chivas will be the favorites against Morelia, although it was difficult for Almeyda not to think about the club's overriding short-term ambition.
"We'd swap everything we have to be league champions," said Almeyda, adding, "Tonight, we'll enjoy this and then focus on the [Saturday] league [game against Puebla] tomorrow."
It has been over 10 years since Chivas lifted a Liga MX title and hard-fought cup victories like the one against Monterrey are a reminder that Guadalajara's red-and-white team is very much in the hunt for a famous league and cup double.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.