This Wednesday, Toronto FC will play arguably the biggest game in club history as they host Liga MX champions Tigres at BMO Field, in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final showdown.
And what better way is there to build up some hype than by putting their threats under the microscope.
First and foremost, it’s important to underline why I consider this game as the biggest of all for TFC. Obviously, it is not their first participation in this tournament and they have already managed to leave their mark, reaching the last four before being dumped out by another Liga MX side in Santos Laguna.
However, it is the first time that TFC are actually in it to win it. And while this speaks volumes about the club’s ambitions, it also forces the team to play with a chip on their shoulder, weighing them with the responsibility of performing to their best and why not, becoming the first MLS side to win the coveted Champions League.
Now, let’s shift our attention to our opponents.
Founded in 1960, Tigres UANL are the current Liga MX champions, securing the title with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Monterrey in the 2017 Apertura final.
They are currently occupying fourth place in the Clausura tournament, a spot which would enable them to advance to the Liguilla (MLS-style playoffs), but they are still involved in a tight race for first place as they are just two points away from leaders Santos Laguna.
The Mexican side clinched a quarter-final berth in the CCL after overcoming C.S. Herediano of Costa Rica with a 5-3 aggregate, after letting a two-goal lead slip from their hands in the first leg, and then putting three past their opponents at their intimidating 41,000-seat Estadio Universitario.
In their latest domestic outing, Ricardo Ferretti’s clan emerged victorious over Veracruz by two goals to nil with the impressive Luca Zelarayan, the 25 year-old Argentinian playmaker, and French international Andre-Pierre Gignac grabbing both goals.
Excellent header by #Gignac into the top corner for the 2nd #Tigres goal vs #Veracruz tonight. Major worry for #TFCLive that APG is in top form, 4 goals in his last 3 games and 7 goals in 10 #Clausura2018 games. Best striker in the region. #LigaMXEng #CCL #SCCL2018 #TORvTIG pic.twitter.com/9P0Hvxh4Bl— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) March 5, 2018
Tigres manager Ricardo Ferretti put Gignac and Zelarayan in the starting lineup on Sunday, together with Ismael Sosa and Enner Valencia. In the midfield department, he added Jesus Dueñas and Rafael Carioca alongside the Argentinian. At the back, the former Mexico interim coach roped in Ivan Estrada, Hugo Ayala, Juninho and Jorge Torres. Their highly-rated goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman was their custodian.
Undoubtedly, squad depth is what makes Tigres such a solid team. During the match, Ferretti had the luxury of introducing the likes of Eduardo Vargas and Javier Aquino, players who could easily ply their trade in some of Europe’s best leagues, let alone in MLS.
Meanwhile, in their second leg tie in the Champions League, Ferretti employed a three-man attacking front formed by Vargas, Valencia and Mexican winger Jurgen Damm, as they sought to exploit Herediano’s half-space and weaknesses with their velocity and technique.
Here, we will go through some of their main offensive weapons who — although they might not necessarily all play on Wednesday — are definitely Tigres’ most renowned names across the globe.
Valencia is one of Tigres most versatile players as he allows Ferretti to deploy him both in the midfield as well as up front. In fact, the former Pachuca player can easily fulfil the tasks of an attacking midfielder, a winger on both flanks or a striker.
The 28-year old is, without doubt, one of Ecuador’s best players at the moment, with whom he played over 40 games, scoring 21 goals and donning its shirt in major tournaments such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Copa America a year later.
In 31 games for Tigres in the 2017-18 campaign, Valencia has already found the net 15 times, scoring almost a goal per game. Apart from finishing, which he really seems to have polished from his times in England with West Ham United and Everton, he is also crucial in key passes in the attacking end of the field and has also developed a sense of responsibility when it comes to defending.
TFC’s defensive line have to wary of his ability of beating the man and cutting inside to attempt his luck, or else distributing crosses from the empty half-spaces — the same way that the Columbus Crew hurt TFC last weekend.
Known as the Turboman for his pace, Vargas is one of the few players for whom I’ve had a soft spot in my 22-year life. As a keen follower of Italian football, I was very excited for his arrival in the Serie A when he joined Napoli, and even though he may have not left a remarkable impact, he still managed to show flashes of his talent at the Stadio San Paolo. Nonetheless, I hope TFC manage to find a way to keep him at bay, because if not, trouble beckons.
Prior to his $10 million move to Serie A, Vargas collected three major titles with Universidad de Chile and was named Chilean Footballer of the Year in 2011, acclaiming him as Chile’s next big star after Marcelo Salas.
With 35 goals in 81 games for Chile, it would be an understatement to say that Greg Vanney and his staff need to be wary of his threat while planning their strategy for the game. In Europe, Turboman also had spells with Valencia, QPR and more recently (and more successfully) at Hoffenheim, in the Bundesliga.
Velocity and dribbling define Vargas. When he plays up front, he is able to break between the lines or even more, do layoffs in order to put his teammates in a better position to finish themselves. The false nine role suits him because he never really sets himself as the target man for his side, therefore he never really provides a reference for his markers.
El diez. Tigres’ best player, their game-changer. Gignac sent shockwaves around European football when, in his prime, he decided to pack his bags, leave Marseille and head to the other side of the world to put pen to paper with a Mexican side.
Many were the pundits who judged this move as the doomsday of Gignac’s career. Yet, with over 70 goals in 133 games for Tigres, the Frenchman managed also to earn a call-up for Euro 2016, where he was just inches away from sending France into utopia, but the crossbar denied him before Eder earned Portugal the final victory at the Stade de France.
During his stay in Mexico, Gignac has already claimed the Apertura in 2015, 2016 and 2017 but has been on the other side of the medal when it comes to the Champions League, as Tigres lost the last two straight finals against Club America and Pachuca respectively. So from that point of view, Gignac has a point to prove.
His numerous goals earned him the accolade of Liga MX top scorer in the 2016 Clausura and the 2016 Liga MX Golden Ball as well, becoming the first European to do so.
Given his physical structure, Gignac excels in the air, so TFC need to make sure he is man-marked on dead ball situations as he provides a serious threat. The former Toulouse forward has also improved his dribbling skills from time to time, and whenever aerial balls are not possible, he is also able to play the ball off the ground without disrupting the tempo of their play.
He can score from inside the eighteen but also from the outside the box with his long-range efforts which often end up hitting the base of the net in Liga MX. Overall, Tigres are a very hard to side to defend against when in transition as they exploit the empty spaces with such pace and technique that it is like a death sentence to their opponents in such situations.
Meanwhile, Gignac joined Tigres’ pre-TFC training session and traveled to Canada with the side.