Santos Laguna are the runners up from last year's Champions League, but they seem to be suffering from some hangover from last year's Clausura playoffs win, which got them to this stage. Their league form is middling, so how will that affect their play tonight? FMF State of Mind's (and WTR Live guest commentator) Alicia Ratteree answers some of our questions about the Gurrerros from Torreon.
John Leung (JL): Since the teams last met in April, what has changed for Santos Laguna? And how will these changes affect this clash?
Alicia Ratteree (AR): It has been an eventful period since Santos and TFC last met. Santos of course made it to the CCL final, and narrowly lost to defending champion Monterrey. They rebounded from that disappointment by continuing their dominant form in the Mexican Primera and winning the 2012 Clausura title by beating Monterrey. The team is basically intact from the spring squad, and added a very good player in midfielder Gerardo Lugo, who was a consistent offensive threat in his last stop in Morelia. Like Monterrey, Santos Laguna have made a point of maintaining stability, something that is normally not a hallmark of Mexican clubs, and while they haven't started the current Apertura campaign in sparkling form, they are still a dangerous team.
JL: What should TFC be most concerned about within the Santos team?
AR: The depth at striker for Santos is a real threat for opponents. The leading striker of the bunch is Oribe Peralta, who is fresh off a gold medal-worthy performance for Mexico at the Olympics. There have been some rumors that Peralta may get looks from European clubs, and may be somewhat unsettled. If he's not focused and on form, there's U.S. international Herculez Gomez, who's scored two goals in five appearances in Liga MX, and has a knack for coming up in the big occasions.
There's also Darwin Quintero, who leads the team with three goals in league play and another three in CCL play, but who can be a very streaky player. And Christian Suarez provides good service on the wing and chips in with goals of his own from time to time. As a result, even if a team keeps Santos' forwards scoreless through the first hour of a game, more often than not there's somebody to come off the bench and provide a boost in the attack. That's why TFC needs to maintain a strong 90 minute performance defensively if they want to hang with Santos.
More with Alicia, after the jump...
JL: What's Santos Laguna's mindset coming into this game, given they're on a four game winless streak right now in the Apertura?
AR: The talk in Mexico is that the team is suffering from a bit of a post-title hangover. There's nothing particularly wrong with the club, per se, but the motivation may not be particularly pushing the team along in the league at the minute. Given the fact that Mexico uses a playoff system to determine season champions, there's no reason to panic at this point, although they are currently outside of the playoff spots. It is unclear, however, if their domestic struggles will carry over to the CCL, since they have unfinished business in that competition. Still, although Santos is a mature and veteran squad, I don't think they are the kind of team that can flip a switch and perform flawlessly in one competition if they are struggling in another.
JL: Given how much of a game Santos got the last time they met before TFC faded away, what will be in Benjamin Galindo's mind when he plans for this clash at BMO? Are there TFC players that Santos will be genuinely fretting over...and if so, whom?
AR: I think Ryan Johnson's skill set gave Santos trouble in the last meeting, and he could put them to the test again. His combination of speed, power and guile has given CCL teams in general major troubles, and Santos will probably try to contain him. At the same time, I think the defense will be under far more pressure this time around, because of how well Toronto played against them, and there will likely be an emphasis on defensive discipline all over the field and not necessarily to focus on one player.
JL: What has Mexican media, especially in Torreon, made of the upcoming clash?
AR: Torreon really got behind Santos' path to the CCL final in the spring, but Mexican clubs are expected to advance to the late rounds in international competitions, especially the Champions League. The media is treating the game as a way for the team to wake up and find their form, but at the same time, the game is not getting center stage treatment, primarily because it is early in the competition and there are many other competitions going on with Mexican clubs at the moment.
JL: What are some of the weaknesses Santos has that TFC may be able to exploit?
AR: The defense is a weak point. (JL: Hmm, I wonder where we've heard that one before?) Mainly, they are inconsistent, and on their day, they can hold practically any team scoreless. But goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez is getting older, and center back Felipe Baloy is particularly prone to making boneheaded mistakes like picking up a red card or taking a break on a play (JL: That sounds familiar, too...) Given the way the last match in Toronto played out, I'm guessing Galindo is going to give extra attention to the defense. They can still be quite vulnerable and may resort to a shootout if necessary.
JL: What do you think will be the projected lineup?
AR: Rather than pick a lineup, here's what I noticed in the lineup in the first CCL match. Galindo played a reserve defense, with three defenders under the age of 24, but he basically played a first-choice midfield and striker corps. I'd expect to see at least two of the three of Quintero, Gomez and Peralta, as well as Lugo and Spanish midfielder Marc Crosas. But I think you'll get a good sense of how Galindo is approaching the match depending on who he selects at defense -- If it's Oswaldo Alanis or Kenyi Adachi, I'd say TFC is being taken lightly.
JL: What's your prediction for this match?
AR: Santos will win a wild 3-2 match.
We'll have more with Alicia when she co-commentates with me during WTR Live tomorrow night, so stay tuned...