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Chivas thrilled to clear first hurdle and more Liga MX Liguilla thoughts

Goal.com logo Goal.com 15-05-2017

Four teams' dreams of lifting the Liga MX title have been dashed and vacation plans are being made, while the four that remain are sorting travel plans for the semifinals.

Toluca meets Chivas and Tijuana faces Tigres in the semifinals with both first legs taking place Thursday and the deciding matches happening Sunday.

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We'll look ahead to those enticing matchups, but first here are a few thoughts from each of the quarterfinal series:

Chivas finally clear first hurdle with Almeyda

It took six tries for Chivas coach Matias Almeyda to get his first Liguilla win, and even when it came it wasn't entirely convincing. A goal from a corner kick by Orbelin Pineda, who used his head to redirect a shot bound for Atlas goalkeeper Miguel Fraga, ended up as the deciding goal. Chivas went through only by virtue of a better regular-season finish than their Guadalajara rival, but that's of little importance to Almeyda.

After two series defeats to rival America and last week's loss to Los Zorros in the first leg, getting through is more than enough for the coach. You could see it in his face as he celebrated with his staff after clinching passage. Even so, the coach recognizes the Copa MX-Liga MX double is hardly in his team's hands.

"The last three goals were from (center back Oswaldo) and Orbelin," he said at a news conference after the match. "Today we were better in the second half. We were the team that had the ball more. Hopefully we can rediscover this fluidness, but the reality is the other teams are scoring more goals than us, so they're the candidates (to win the league)."

As it often happens, the first time a team is able to accomplish something, a dam bursts. Almeyda getting playoff success could be one of those situations.

And the team is getting a boost at the right time. Rodolfo Pizarro came on for the final half-hour of the contest while Angel Zaldivar was fit enough to make the bench. Getting back one or both of those players would allow the Argentine manager to make lineup adjustments that would help the team play better in the semifinals — either pushing Pineda back to his more familiar position alongside Jose Juan Vazquez or dropping the struggling Javier "La Chofis" Lopez to the bench.

"I returned to doing the thing I like the most," Pizarro told reporters Sunday. "I'm very happy to be able to help the team and I hope we keep advancing. I'm hoping to have more activity in the semifinals."

Gignac can be stopped, but not like that

Andre-Pierre Gignac has dominated the Mexican league since he arrived, but this tournament (and the one before it) showed there are ways to keep the Frenchman down. When Tigres aren't able to possess the ball or find inroads wide through their talented wingers, Gignac often doesn't find the ball at his feet. This is not what Monterrey did. After Tigres took a strong advantage in the first leg, they finished off a 6-1 aggregate victory with a 2-0 win in the Estadio BBVA Bancomer.

On the other hand, not much you can really do about this free kick.

Not only are Tigres red-hot and facing a Tijuana team in the semifinals that they just thumped in league play, they could be getting healthier with both forward Eduardo Vargas and left back Jorge Torres Nilo participating in some parts of training. But while there are plenty of good feelings around the team, the players insist their focus is still on going step by step.

"I think we're making a mistake if we think about the final because I think every team that's in the Liguilla is a candidate to win it," midfielder Guido Pizarro said Saturday. "So we took an important step for our fans and because we value every opponent we face. The matches that are going to come, I think, are going to be very tough."

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Tijuana will need to do a better job making sure the midfield and defense don't become detached, and keeping the banks of players together generally is a strength of Miguel Herrera's teams. Even so, Gignac will be difficult to stop after scoring seven goals in his last three matches.

Santos' late charge shows team's potential

Santos Laguna made every effort to come back against Toluca but ultimately saw its season end after a 3-1 win Saturday meant a 5-4 aggregate defeat.

According to ESPN Mexico, the 33 shots Santos registered Saturday were more than any other team during the past 10 postseasons.

Obviously, the match was lost in the first leg where Toluca came into the Estadio Corona and handed Santos its first home league defeat since October 2016. Not only did the Red Devils beat Santos, they did it soundly. And the contrast between styles in those matches from Santos certainly raises questions about what coach Chepo de la Torre chose to do with his tactics in the first leg when, like for much of the season, he frustratingly kept his team playing conservative even when another goal could've been in the cards for a more aggressive team.

Sometimes trying out something new on the soccer pitch is like taking off the training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle. It's not comfortable. It's far easier to maintain the status quo that, functionally, is fine. You can get to where you need to go on four wheels. But you can do so much more, go so much farther and do it faster on two. Sometimes, you will fall. But eventually you will move like you never have before.

De La Torre's team still needs a piece or two — signing another player who can help Osvaldo Martinez generate chances and perhaps replacing Nestor Araujo if a European team comes calling for the center back after his time with the national team — but the pieces are there to make a run. The manager saw what his team could do when he let it take some risks. A little more freedom could mean a whole lot more success in Torreon.

Xolos' top seed coming back to haunt?

The curse of the Superlider generally refers to the fact that the No. 1 seed struggles in matches and often falls short of the crown. Tijuana felt that last tournament when it stumbled its way into the Liguilla and was trounced by Leon in the quarterfinal first leg. Despite a furious comeback in the second leg, Xolos couldn't avoid an embarrassing early exit.

Xolos spoke all season about avoiding that fate, and while there were some nervous moments after a 1-0 reverse in Morelia, the team hit its stride in the Estadio Caliente and coasted to the semifinals.

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What reward awaits them? The hottest team in the league, Tigres. This is a side that just defeated Xolos 3-0, and that was before Andre-Pierre Gignac went on the run he is currently on.

It would be ridiculous for a manager to say his team would rather finish second or to actively try to drop points, but it looks as though the leader has been cursed once again with a difficult path to the trophy stand. Thursday's first leg will be critical with Miguel Herrera's men needing to avoid both what happened to them in the Apertura against Leon and what Tigres did to Monterrey in the first round — a result so lopsided the second leg is rendered academic.

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