Following long layoff, Monterrey and Club America must answer big questions in Liga MX final

Rayados’ Club World Cup campaign delayed the Gran Final, and both teams have their own challenges to overcome in Thursday’s first leg

It’s not often the home team has to travel around the world for its match.

With the Liga MX final first leg finally set to kick off, weeks after the matchup between America and Monterrey was set, the biggest question surrounding the game is how the teams will respond to the long layoff – and how Monterrey will respond to having played in the Middle East less than a week before hosting Thursday’s first leg.

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For them, it wasn’t much of a layoff. Rayados were the reason for the season (of waiting), with their presence in the final and the Club World Cup forcing the series to be delayed from Dec. 12 and Dec. 15 to Thursday night and Sunday. Monterrey took part in the FIFA tournament in Qatar, playing three matches – winning two games but losing to UEFA Champions League winners Liverpool on a late goal from Roberto Firmino in the semifinal.

If there was any doubt about where the focus was, however, manager Antonio Mohamed cleared it up by sending his regulars back to northern Mexico after the loss to Liverpool so they could begin preparing for Las Aguilas. A relative reserve squad was able to top Al-Hilal in penalties as Mohamed’s regulars started studying up on America. 

Their simple physical presence in Mexico should help as well. Qatar is a whopping 92 feet above sea level, while Monterrey sits 1,673 feet higher. The trip to Mexico City this weekend at 7,350 feet will be a step up that Rayados may have difficult adjusting to.

It won’t matter if they have a lopsided win in tonight’s first leg, though. And it’s also possible the rhythm Rayados are in thanks to playing three matches while America had several days off and then only training sessions.

“They’ll be able to have a physical advantage, a minor one for me, but when you think about the mental aspect we were really strong in the World Cup and we’ve come in even stronger,” Monterrey center back Nico Sanchez said this week. He was among a first group of players to get into La Sultana del Norte on Friday along with attackers Dorlan Pabon and Vincent Janssen, goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero, midfielder Carlos Rodriguez, and defender Leonel Vangioni. The next day winger Jesus Gallardo, midfielder Celso Ortiz and defender Cesar Montes came in a day after to allow Rayados’ core to have something resembling a normal week of preparation.

America’s week had a few wrinkles as well. Tens of thousands of fans turned up to the Estadio Azteca on Monday to send the team off at an open training session but also to not-so-subtly deliver the message that they expect another title.

America manager Miguel Herrera gave his players several days off after the team flexed its muscle in a 2-0 second-leg win in the semifinals on Dec. 9. A players’ manager by nature, Herrera didn’t want his players to hone in too much on the task at hand and heap unneeded pressure on themselves as they waited more than two weeks for the contest.

Players made the most of their breaks, taking in NBA games, traveling or enjoying time in restaurants. That drip of social media information, however, has vanished as the game finally draws closer.

Even so, the first leg looms large, and America players feel they must remember they have the ace in the hole that is the second leg at the Azteca on Sunday.

“It’s a team that uses the ball well. You saw it in the Liguilla that they’ve gotten strong at home. We’ve got to be smart when we go play the first leg there and not start to lose hope because they win all their games at home,” America midfielder Guido Rodriguez said.

It may feel that way, but Monterrey doesn’t have a 100% record at home. In fact, losing finals at home dogged Mohamed during his previous tenure with the club. And Monterrey certainly has never played a home game like this before, one in which even the players who returned early were 8,000 miles away in a totally different time zone and environment less than a week ago.

In a game in which both teams’ squads are packed full of talent, whether Rayados respond better to that challenge or if America is able to focus after weeks of inactivity will determine who takes the upper hand in Thusday’s first leg and, perhaps, who will lift the trophy as confetti falls Sunday night at Mexico’s most famous venue.

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