MEXICO CITY -- Club America will soon land in Mexico on the back of a fourth-place finish at the FIFA Club World Cup. The team's next main objective will be to defeat Tigres in the 2016 Apertura final, something it has been able to do in the last two finals featuring these two sides.
There's no way around it: America must win its 13th league title to close out a centennial year that has had more lows than highs. When both squads are measured in this tale of the tape, it's Tigres who head into the final as the favorites to win the championship.
Club America's goalkeeper Moises Munoz has been playing at a stupendous level over the last two months, providing a lot of reliability to his teammates in the defense. Against Real Madrid in the Club World Cup, Munoz was one of Las Aguilas' standouts and the main reason why the final score only read 2-0 in favor of Los Blancos.
For Tigres, goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman doesn't fully represent a reliability. However, it's well known that he has all the abilities to be one of the top goalkeepers on this side of the pond. Yet every now and then, Guzman commits howlers like these two against Morelia and Necaxa.
It's evident that since Ricardo La Volpe became America's head coach, Las Aguilas' defense has significantly improved, but it still lacks the consistency and efficiency of Tigres' back line.
Over the past two years, Hugo Ayala, Juninho and Jorge Torres Nilo have played a great bulk of the minutes for Tigres, and defensive midfielder Guido Pizarro is perhaps the best in Liga MX at plugging himself in the center of the defense when his team needs it.
Tigres have only conceded six goals in all of their away matches this season (regular season and Liguilla). It's a resounding stat, and one that will come into play when Tigres visit Estadio Azteca next Thursday.
Throughout the entire Liguilla, La Volpe has made a series of decisions concerning America's midfield that have left many perplexed. Oribe Peralta practically played as a midfielder in the quarter and semifinals, while William da Silva started all the matches as the sole defensive midfielder, but managed to score three goals in the series against Chivas and Necaxa.
La Volpe's tinkering has worked, but against Tigres, it will be a whole different story. Tigres' midfield is equal parts solid and dynamic. The dynamism provided by Jurgen Damm and Javier Aquino has been impressive in the Liguilla, but America has midfielders with similar qualities, like Ecuadorian Renato Ibarra.
For the final, America captain Rubens Sambueza will be ready to appear in Las Aguilas' XI. Sambueza's presence will level things up in the midfield, where multiple battles are bound to unfold. The Pizarro vs. Sambueza duel should be closely followed.
Andre-Pierre Gignac has scored five goals in four playoff games, while Ismael Sosa has scored once in the same number of matches. They make up an attacking partnership that demands the opposition defense to always be alert.
America's attacking duo of Silvio Romero and Peralta hasn't had the same kind of synergy as Tigres' own. During the La Volpe era, it appears as though Peralta and Romero get in each other;s way as both move inside the box. America's best football under La Volpe's watch has come when one striker is up top, not two.
The numbers in the Liguilla suggest that Tigres' attacking duo will head into the final in top form, while America's will enter with the gas tank half-filled. Peralta has been the only forward to knock in goals, while key attacking threats like Darwin Quintero and Romero have yet to celebrate a goal in the present postseason.
Whenever La Volpe teams enter crucial games as the underdogs, his players tend to shine. In the year of the centennial, where pressure around America has been at an all-time high, having the underdog tag releases some of that tension. With La Volpe at the helm, Las Aguilas have proclaimed defensive order as the key to success. Their main attacking plays derive mostly from counterattacks or carefully executed free kicks.
Ricardo Ferretti has won two of his four league titles with Tigres, while La Volpe has only led one club to a Liga MX championship. The numbers are not eye-opening, especially for two managers who have been in Liga MX for many years. This will be a series where small details will make the difference, an area where La Volpe tends to be efficient and effective.
Since the second semester of 2014, America and Tigres have met in two finals: the 2014 Apertura and 2015 CONCACAF Champions League. In both, the decisive second leg was played at Estadio Azteca. This time around it will take place at Tigres' El Volcan, where Los Auriazules have won both playoff games, scoring seven goals and conceding just once.
Closing the final at home will be of great benefit to Tigres. America will need to get a win at Azteca, because if Tigres steal a draw or win from El Coloso de Santa Ursula, Los Auriazules will leave Mexico's capital with one hand on the championship.