Just seven years ago it existed only as an idea, and now Club Tijuana is into the last eight of the Copa Libertadores.
It’s been a meteoric rise. Tuesday’s 2-1 victory away in Brazil – only the fourth for a Mexican side in 33 Copa Libertadores matches in the South American country – against Palmeiras was the latest example of the club ignoring the odds and achieving what it really shouldn’t have the right to achieve.
In many ways the win and passage to the Libertadores quarterfinals neatly epitomized what the club has come to represent.
The mental strength Antonio Mohamed’s team showed in a packed 37,000 Estadio Pacaembu was impressive – if not surprising for regular followers - as was the solidity of the team. But if there is one defining quality of this Tijuana side, it is “humility,” something that the coach and the players repeat time and time again in interviews. Nobody gets ahead of himself.
“We played as a team, we played for each other,” stressed man of match midfielder Fernando Arce on Mexican TV (Fox Deportes) after the game.
But while Tijuana may plead humility, that doesn’t mean it lacks fight or ambition.
Unlike many Mexican sides over the years, Tijuana relished the physical challenge against Palmeiras and, in spite of the seven yellow cards (and the sending off of Pablo Aguilar), the players didn’t lose their heads and stood up to the Brazilians when the battle was on the brink of boiling over. If anything, it was Palmeiras which was frustrated, proving that the charge of naivety that has been thrown at the Mexican teams in the past in Copa Libertadores campaigns cannot be said about this Xolos team.
Perhaps one of the reasons for that, and a striking feature of this Xolos side, is the South American influence. Right through the spine are players that are either hard as nails, or have the flair and ability to produce magic. Both are associated with soccer in South America.
It’s hard to think of a center back partnership as tough as that of Argentine Javier Gandolfi and Paraguayan Aguilar in the Liga MX, and if the former doesn’t recover from the injury that forced him to leave the field in the 73rd minute for the Mineiro game it will be a major blow for Xolos, with Aguilar out suspended.
In front of those two is perhaps the unsung hero of this Xolos team, experienced Argentine defensive midfielder Cristian Pellerano. He reads the game well and regularly stops other teams playing through the middle of the pitch, forcing them out wide to cross, where Gandolfi and Aguilar are in their element. That was very visible against Palmeiras.
The other side of the coin is Colombian Duvier Riascos and Ecuadoran Fidel Martinez, two players who have improved immeasurably under Mohamed. Both have always been capable of unbalancing any defense, but are now increasingly aware of their role in the team and funneling their individual talents for the greater good of the unit.
Then there is the coach. Argentine Mohamed, at just 43, has already won the Copa Sudamericana with Independiente, has claimed the Liga MX with an unfancied side and now is enhancing his reputation in the Libertadores. His simple, effective tactical setup has worked wonders.
Mohamed may well be leaving the border town when the Libertadores run comes to an end, with family matters in Argentina pulling him back south, but there will surely be first division teams on the other side of the Atlantic having a good look at whether he is worth a punt.
Xolos as an organization deserve praise too for standing up to Liga MX authorities and openly stating the importance of the Copa Libertadores. Now they are about to reap the rewards with a blockbuster tie against Ronaldinho & Co.
The next round against Atletico Mineiro will be by far the most difficult task so far. On paper, reaching the semis may be beyond Xolos, but then that has been said many times before in the short history of the club.
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