America favored but Chivas could surprise in Clasico Nacional
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Mexico's two biggest clubs will lock horns on Saturday in Guadalajara with Club America sitting pretty in first place in the Liga MX table and Chivas all the way down in 17th.
It appears, on paper, that the 229th edition of the the Liga MX's Clasico Nacional is a mismatch, an opportunity for high-flying Club America -- undefeated after nine games of the 2018 Clausura regular season -- to end any lingering hopes Chivas have of making the postseason.
"We know America is a great team, the league leader, but we are calm," said Chivas striker Alan Pulido on Wednesday following his team's 5-0 thrashing of Cibao FC in the CONCACAF Champions League. "We know everyone puts America as favorite, but that motivates us."
Tickets sold out for the game on Tuesday and even though Chivas have only won five of 26 Liga MX games since lifting the 2017 Clausura title, the local goodwill toward the team and manager Matias Almeyda has largely remained. And there is a feeling in the Chivas camp that America is far from unbeatable.
"It's true they are very good, but they don't have super powers," he said after Wednesday's match.
Club America may not have special powers but it has regained its aura under coach Miguel Herrera this season.
The signing of French forward Jeremy Menez, the way Cecilio Dominguez is starting to rediscover his form and the central midfield duo of Guido Rodriguez and Mateus Uribe -- arguably the best in Liga MX -- has made Las Aguilas into a side that is both easy on the eye and a team that gets results.
The vertical attacking play, intensity when not in possession and steely defense are all trademarks of Herrera teams and America is showing all of them this Clausura. But America and Herrera would be mistaken if they think the latest game in Mexico's most important rivalry -- pitting the two most successful clubs in the land -- will be anything but difficult.
On the face of it -- the stats on goal differential (America's is +9 compared to Chivas' -5), their respective positions in the league table and the results of each teams' past five games -- it is a story of two clubs with very different realities. America looks set for a title challenge while Chivas may give up on reaching the playoffs in the next week or two in order to shift attention to the CONCACAF Champions League.
But don't discount Chivas. The cliches about clasicos being different will be spouted between now and kickoff. What won't be talked about as much is that Chivas haven't been as bad as results have suggested. The team from Guadalajara has had more shots than any other team this Clausura and in terms of expected goals, Chivas is second in Liga MX only to Monterrey, with Club America in sixth. In total, Chivas have scored six fewer goals than expected. Add into the equation that Chivas have the highest percentage of possession in Liga and have created more chances than any other team and things may not be as simple for America as some suggest.
Where things have gone wrong for Chivas is in the finishing department. Chivas are bottom of the Liga MX table when it comes to percentage of shots converted. Naturally, one of the key questions ahead of Saturday's clasico will be whether Chivas can start converting chances, especially in a game that is likely to be open.
It may sound overly simplistic but the lack of goals in games Chivas has dominated led to visible frustration in the players and then added pressure. Combined with frequent mistakes at the back and it isn't difficult to explain why Chivas are where they are.
Obviously, Chivas will have to find a way to track the marauding Menez and stop America wingers Dominguez and Renato Ibarra from finding space behind Guadalajara's attacking full-backs, Jesus Sanchez and Edwin Hernandez. They will need to have more cohesion and coordination between their centre-backs. But Almeyda won a title 10 months ago with roughly the same group of players.
Circumstances may have changed since Chivas leveled America on 12 titles last May, but the Guadalajara club and its fans will badly want to end America's undefeated streak, even if it may mean little at the end of the season.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.