Monterrey lifts Liga MX Apertura title as Mohamed sought divine intervention to overcome America
MEXICO CITY -- Monterrey head coach Antonio Mohamed spent the early part of Sunday visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- dedicated to Mexico's patron saint -- in the north of Mexico City. Mohamed had promised his son Farid, who tragically died in a car crash in Germany in 2006, that he'd one day win the Liga MX championship with Monterrey, something he prayed for on the morning of the second leg of the final against Club America.
After the game had ended 2-1 to America -- and the series 3-3 on aggregate -- and as the penalty shootout got underway, Mohamed could be seen tightly holding his rosary beads. And when Leonel Vangioni netted the winning penalty to secure Monterrey's fifth title, the Argentine burst into tears on keeping his promise to his son.
Mohamed may believe that there was some other force guiding his team to the title, and Monterrey certainly had some luck along the way, but it was also down to the former Celta Vigo coach's in-game management.
Monterrey had started with a back five, which only invited America on, with the home side boosted by 72,000 fans in the Azteca. By halftime, goals from Federico Vinas and Richard Sanchez had America 2-0 up and Monterrey looked out of gas and out of inspiration. America's lead could've easily been greater.
At the break, Vincent Janssen came on for Rodolfo Pizarro and a change from a back five to a 4-4-2, with the Dutch striker playing alongside Rogelio Funes Mori up front, brought new life to Monterrey. It wasn't like the substitution suddenly saw Monterrey play total football, but a tired team -- Rayados only came back from the Club World Cup in Qatar last week -- suffering at altitude had two targets up front for longer balls to at least unsettle America.
Monterrey did get a break when Jorge Sanchez made an error to allow Funes Mori to pull the score back to 2-1 and Guido Rodriguez's penalty was atrocious in the shootout, but Rayados were at least fighting and wrestling control of the game from America during the second half and even into extra time.
Like in the final, almost everything Mohamed has touched has come good since he came back in early October to take over a team he managed from 2015 to 2018. At that point, Monterrey was in 12th position on 16 points after 12 games of the regular season; few could've imagined with the way the team was playing that a title victory and a third-placed finish at the Club World Cup would be possible.
The sensational change in fortunes means Mohamed is set to extend his contract. "[Mohamed] will be here for a long time," stated Monterrey sporting director Duilio Davino after the game.
But it wasn't just a special night for Mohamed.
For former Tottenham Hotspur striker Janssen, the occasion in such a famous stadium as the Azteca won't be forgotten quickly. The Dutch striker -- who has earned the nickname "El Toro" ("the bull") in Mexico -- was a handful alongside Funes Mori and he struck the first penalty of the shootout with authority in front of the America barra brava.
"I think it's always important to score the first one and I've never missed one in my career," said Janssen afterward. "I told the coach I wanted to take the first one to start off good."
It seemed to set the tone, and although 27-year-old hasn't always been a starter for Monterrey this season, he's happy with his decision to ditch England for Mexico and certainly seems popular with the Rayados faithful.
"No, not at all," Janssen said when asked if he had any regrets about moving to Mexico, adding he sees himself staying with Monterrey. "No regrets."
Another player without regrets about moving from Europe to Monterrey is Miguel Layun, who ended his year with a Liga MX title and CONCACAF Champions League winner's medal, and came into the Apertura just after having a cancerous tumor removed. It was Layun's third title win inside Estadio Azteca, the difference this time being that he wasn't in a Club America shirt.
"I've fallen for Rayados," he said. "I'm excited thinking about ending my career here."
Layun added that the America fans who abused him should understand that the Mexico City club -- for whom he played for four years -- didn't come in for him.
"Sometimes I think it's a national prize to abuse me," he said, laughing. "It makes me laugh because everywhere I go [the abuse] seems [to get] people get excited."
The future of a couple of Monterrey players is up in the air, however. Pizarro wouldn't confirm he'll be around next season, and the performances of Cesar Montes and Carlos Rodriguez have surely turned heads in Europe.
"I'd love to go to Europe, it's something that everyone wants, but these are my colors, this is my team," said Monterrey native Rodriguez. "Since I was young I've played here and I wouldn't be bothered if I stayed here forever."
But whatever happens in those individual cases, Monterrey can look back on a decade of success with two Liga MX titles and four CONCACAF Champions Leagues. The heavy investment means trophies are a necessity for Rayados, but of all of Mexico's first-division clubs, perhaps only Tigres and America have had a better past decade.
And with Mohamed in place for the longer term, a young sporting director in Davino, money to spend and a quality youth system, the next decade also looks particularly bright for Rayados.