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Monterrey: The Liga MX Team Getting Ready to Topple Liverpool

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 13, 2019

AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO - DECEMBER 07: Players of Monterrey celebrate after winning the Semifinals second leg match between Necaxa and Monterrey as part of the Torneo Apertura 2019 Liga MX at Victoria Stadium on December 07, 2019 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Hector Vivas/Getty Images

There's never a dull moment with Monterrey. Last May, the club won their fourth CONCACAF Champions League trophy of the decade. That they defeated their bitter city rivals Tigres 2-1 on aggregate in the final made the victory sweeter.

Monterrey's coach, the former Atletico Madrid striker Diego Alonso, could bask in the glory of becoming the only manager to win CONCACAF Champions League titles with different clubs. But not for long. In September, he was sacked.

Monterrey's domestic form had been patchy. The press were hammering him. The club's directors felt there was no time to sit around. The popular Antonio Mohamed—who had been fired from the job in 2018—was called back to sit in the hot seat. The shock therapy has worked.

"It's gone well so far this time for Antonio Mohamed," says Diego Mancera, a journalist with El Pais. "The team had been in a bit of a slump under Alonso—they'd slipped out of the play-off places in the league, but Mohamed has started a resurgence.

"Mohamed got them into the [league] play-offs. They qualified as the eighth team. Then they beat the top-seeded team Santos Laguna 6-3 in the quarter-finals, and they have just won their semi-final at the weekend [beating Necaxa 3-1 on aggregate] so they will contest the final after the Club World Cup concludes."

Antonio Mohamed
Antonio MohamedManuel Guadarrama/Getty Images

Mohamed, 49, has bags of charm. As a player, he was another gifted, small, slightly chubby No. 10 from the Argentinian football factory. At the tail-end of his career, he played a few seasons with Monterrey, but it was his time with Toros Neza (before the club went into liquidation) that won him cult status in Mexico.

"As a player, he was 'picaro'—a playmaker, and Toros Neza was a team that people loved," says Raul Vilchis, a Mexican football journalist with the New York Times. "They were a team full of crazy personalities, players who dyed their hair, and so on.

"They were the great underdog team in the 1990s—they didn't win anything, but they played entertaining, joyous football. Mohamed was the flagship of that doomed enterprise. He embodied the spirit of the team."

As a coach, Mohamed has been around the block. He has won Mexican premier division titles with Tijuana and America but came up short in two finals with Monterrey during his first stint in the job from 2015 to 2018. He's affectionately known as "El Turco" (The Turk) because of his Arab background. 

"Here in the Mexican football ecosystem everybody likes Mohamed," says Mancera. "He's very effusive, but he doesn't get into fights with other managers. He gets on well with the press. His best quality is that he can create a good connection with his footballers. He's very good at working with young players. His dress sense unsettles some people because it's a young person's get-up. It attracts attention. You'll often see him with rosary beads in his hands during crucial matches."

On the pitch, Mohamed adapts his style to suit the opposition, as there's enough quality in his squad to cut his cloth to suit his measure. Sometimes he'll line up with five across the back, and he has a strong preference for fast, counter-attacking football.

"The team plays with a goalkeeper, Marcelo Barovero, who gives them a lot of confidence," says Hector Hugo Eugui, a former Monterrey manager. "Mohamed likes a 4-1-2-3 system. He plays a lot on the counter-attack and puts emphasis on pressing and quickly trying to recover the ball when his team has lost it.

"He's good motivator. He doesn't complicate things. His ideas are very clear, straightforward. He gives his players a lot of freedom on the pitch, to be themselves—providing them with the room to make their own decisions, to create openings in attack—but always related to the systems he has been working on during the week." 

Marcelo Barovero
Marcelo BaroveroHector Vivas/Getty Images

The 35-year-old Barovero was one of five Monterrey players on this year's CONCACAF Champions League team of the season, along with veteran defenders Nicolas Sanchez and Miguel Layun, midfielder Carlos Rodriguez, and the 25-year-old wing-back Jesus Gallardo, who was linked with Atletico Madrid during the summer, per AS.

"Jesus Gallardo is a very interesting player," says Mancera. "He was a standout player during the [2018] World Cup in Russia for Mexico—a key man when Mexico beat Germany in the group stages. In Monterrey, he's been playing very well. He's a guy that's excellent at knowing when to join the attack and when to retreat. He's a good passer, good at providing assists. He's also scored decisive goals for Monterrey. He lights up the team's play and is one of its most important players."

Both Mancera and Eugui also single out the team's 25-year-old playmaker Rodolfo Pizarro, a precocious talent who was first capped by Mexico as a teenager in 2014 and became the most expensive interleague transfer in the history of Mexican football when he left Guadalajara to join Monterrey in the summer of 2018 for a reported fee of €15 million.

Monterrey are the wealthiest club in Mexico's premier division, Liga MX, with a squad that's worth approximately €84 million, according to the website Transfermarkt.com. That figure holds up favourably with other rivals in the Americas, such as Flamengo in Brazil (€145 million) and the MLS side Atlanta United (€70 million), but pales in comparison to European giants like Liverpool, whose squad value is in excess of €1 billion, for example.

"Liga MX is very solid," says Vilchis. "The two World Cups Mexico hosted—in 1970 and 1986 –helped in building good quality stadiums and in fostering a football tradition. Also, many of the clubs have big multinational owners, like FEMSA at Monterrey, CEMEX at Tigres and Televisa at America, so their finances are sound.

"In contrast, in a league like Argentina's, there is a lot of problems with corruption and debt, although Mexico isn't as good at developing and exporting its players as Argentina is. The Mexican league is trying to reduce the number of foreigners who can play in Liga MX—next season the number will be reduced to nine footballers per team so more homegrown footballers can be produced. It's the big debate in Liga MX. 

"The Mexico national team has failed to progress past the second round in six successive World Cups. Why? What happened? Why can't they progress? There isn't a sufficient quantity of Mexican footballers emerging because the league is flooded with foreigners—Argentinians, Brazilians, Colombians and other South American footballers. On the other hand, those foreign players elevate the level in the league. It's good for Mexicans to compete with them."

Mexican teams left the Copa Libertadores competition—South America's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League—in 2016 because it clashed with Mexico's football calendar. Instead, Mexican football clubs like Monterrey are looking north to grow their income streams, although there is debate about the best way forward. Both Mancera and Vilchis discount the notion—which has been mooted—that Liga MX might one day merge with the MLS.

"Playing bi-national tournaments with big teams from the MLS has become attractive," says Mancera. "There are a lot of Mexican expatriates who live in cities like Los Angeles and across states like Texas. It's a great way to generate money for clubs from both leagues. The future is headed towards playing more of these kinds of tournaments, or All-Star games. 

"There is a lot of analysts and ex-footballers in Mexico, however, pushing for Mexican clubs to rejoin the Copa Libertadores, but it's complicated because of schedule conflicts and the large journeys involved for Mexican teams playing games in South American countries. Club directors prefer to look at the money on offer in the United States."

Football is a huge passion in the city of Monterrey.
Football is a huge passion in the city of Monterrey.Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

The healthy state of Monterrey's finances is the result of two factors. They have a lucrative sponsorship deal with FEMSA, one of Mexico's largest corporations, and they always pack out their 53,500-capacity stadium for home games. The city of Monterrey in the north of Mexico—which is home to a fierce rivalry between Monterrey and Tigres—is football mad and prosperous. 

"The city of Monterrey is industrial. It's like the Texas of Mexico," says Vilchis. "It's a very modern city compared to the rest of the country, but it doesn't have the cultural aspects other Mexican cities have. It's grey. It only has football and baseball. Mexico City, for example, is very cosmopolitan—it has theatres, cinemas, a lot of museums and art. Monterrey is provincial. It's in the middle of the desert. The city is engrossed with football, and it has created a great rivalry between its two teams.

"Sure, there is great passion for football across the country of Mexico, but it's more as a diversion. For most Mexicans, it doesn't matter if their team wins or loses. You see it in the World Cups—Mexican fans are some of the best supporters in the world. The important thing for them is not that the team doesn't lose, but that they're there to enjoy the party, to have a good time. They're laid back. They like to fool around.

"Football fans from Monterrey are different. They're very competitive. The city is about 140 miles from Texas and the U.S. border. It has a very American mentality, very competitive. Its fans are really intense. They take football games very serious because there's nothing else in the city. They're fanatics in the good sense of the word."

Monterrey's fans will have a lot to get their teeth stuck into at the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar, which begins December 11. If the team gets past the Xavi Hernandez-coached Al Sadd in the quarter-final on Saturday, they will come up against the mighty Liverpool in the semi-final.

"They should probably win their first game against Al Sadd, but then, of course, they'll have to play Liverpool," says Eugui. "Monterrey's fans believe they can win against Liverpool. They have a strong team that's in the middle of an excellent run of form.

"They know Liverpool have an extraordinary team with very good footballers with a great manager, the German Jurgen Klopp, who has them playing very well, but Monterrey's fans are always very enthusiastic. Realistically, Monterrey's chances are slim, but you never know."

     

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz