Toluca-Santos Laguna tale of the tape: Too close to call ahead of Liga MX final
MEXICO CITY -- Toluca and Santos Laguna will battle it out for the Liga MX championship this week, an unlikely pairing despite the consistency both teams showed throughout the Clausura 2018 regular season.
Two of the more consistent favourites, Monterrey and Tigres, were eliminated in the Liguilla quarterfinals -- the latter fell to Santos Laguna, who also bested Club America, another top contender, en route to the final.
Toluca, on the other hand, faced a less difficult road, taking advantage of their position as the top seed to defeat Morelia and Tijuana, though they dodged bullets late in the second leg of both engagements.
Going into the final, who has the edge to take home the trophy? Here's the full tale of the tape between both teams:
Goalkeeper: Both teams sport Mexican national teamers in goal. Toluca's Alfredo Talavera overcame a serious injury at the start of this year, regaining his usual stellar form in the process with six clean sheets in 10 games.
Talavera will be going to the World Cup this year, a tournament Santos' Jonathan Orozco missed the cut for despite his prior experience in goal for El Tri and a bevy of strong performances this season.
Defense: Only one team (Tijuana) allowed less goals than Toluca in the Clausura 2018 season. Manager Hernan Cristante's defensive unit was stout, allowing only 13 goals in 17 games. Led by Osvaldo Gonzalez, Santiago Garcia and Rodolfo Salinas, Toluca has been nearly invincible at times this tournament.
Though Santos' stats dropped a bit after Mexico international Nestor Araujo was lost to injury in March, the team still boasts one of Liga MX's better defensive groups, led by Carlos Izquierdoz. If Araujo returns for the final, the balance of the entire series could swing.
Midfield: The signing of Brian Lozano from Club America has been a revelation for Santos, who have paired him with another castoff from Las Aguilas, Osvaldo Martinez, to form a superb offensive tandem in the middle of the field. Defensively, Jose Juan Vazquez, a stellar defensive midfielder who will miss the World Cup due to Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio's dislike for shorter players, anchors them to provide balance.
Toluca's group in the middle is also praiseworthy. Winger Rubens Sambueza has been at his best this season, providing the team with steady playmaking and superb dribbling skills. Antonio Rios and Pablo Barrientos have been similarly consistent, albeit less worthy of headlines than their counterparts.
Attack: Djaniny finished as Liga MX's top scorer in the Clausura 2018. The Santos striker notched an impressive 14 goals despite missing a few games to injury. When Djaniny went down, Julio Furch and Jonathan Rodriguez filled in nicely, scoring 10 goals between them in the regular season.
For Toluca, Colombia's Fernando Uribe leads the charge. Uribe scored only four goals during the regular season but has been sizzling in the Liguilla, scoring five times in four games.
Substitutes: Throughout the tournament, Toluca has enjoyed the luxury of bringing former Mexico national team player Angel Reyna off the bench. Gabriel Hauche and Luis Quinones have also presented viable alternatives on offense.
Santos has had contributions from players like Jesus Isijara, who scored a fantastic goal in the second leg of the semifinals, as well as Edwin Cetre, a newcomer for the Clausura 2018 season. Beyond those two, there are few difference makers.
Manager: Hernan Cristante has the distinct possibility of winning titles with Toluca as both a player and now a manager. Though a significant sector of fans wanted him out after disappointments in prior tournaments, he's turned the team's fortunes around quickly and could deliver Toluca's 11th title after a blistering regular season that saw them win 11 of 17 games.
Robert Siboldi was given the permanent job after a trial run following the firing of Jose Manuel de la Torre. Despite the low-key nature of the hiring, Siboldi turned a mid-table team into a finalist in less than a year, an impressive feat given very few players have been added during that span.
Intangibles: This is the third time Toluca and Santos will meet in a final series -- Toluca has won both times. This will be their first meeting since the Bicentenario 2010 final, when Santos squandered a 3-1 lead from the penalty kick spot by missing three in a row.
During this playoff run, Toluca has won just once in their four games thus far in the Liguilla. However, that was a 4-1 stomping of Tijuana in the second leg of the semifinals, their most recent match. On the other side, Santos has not lost since dropping a 2-0 decision in the first leg of the quarterfinals, which would seemingly tip the momentum balance in favor of Santos going into the finals.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.