Monterrey are back in form and ready to give Liverpool a shock
Monterrey is in Qatar at the Club World Cup not just to compete, but to win it.
That's been the consistent message from coach Antonio Mohamed ahead of the tournament. And he stuck to the ambitious tone after advancing from the quarterfinal against Al-Sadd 3-2 on Saturday to set up Wednesday's Club World Cup semifinal against Liverpool.
"We can't stop dreaming that it can happen for us," said Mohamed.
It's a long shot for the CONCACAF champions given Liverpool's quality and the fact the UEFA Champions League winner has shown little sign of weakness or loss of concentration at all in 2019. Even Mohamed described the English club as "the best team in the world."
But the very idea that Monterrey would be going into a Club World Cup semifinal with any degree of confidence would've seemed almost foolish a few months back.
Monterrey went on a six-game streak with just one victory and four losses from Sept. 1. It left Rayados lagging near the bottom of the Liga MX table and it appeared that, once again, a Mexican team would be heading to the Club World Cup out of form. Sporting director Duilio Davino even hinted on Oct. 7 at a major changes shift in the playing squad.
"We're ashamed and the only thing we can do is move forwards and upwards," he said. "All of us have to improve."
A change of coach from Diego Alonso to Antonio "El Turco" Mohamed on Oct. 9 turned the team's fortunes on their head.
Since Mohamed took over the club, Monterrey is undefeated over 14 games and the club has the opportunity in what remains of 2019 to cause an upset in the Club World Cup and then return to Mexico to lift a Liga MX title by defeating Club America in two-legged Apertura final on Dec. 26 and Dec. 29. It had looked as though the Liga MX playoffs were an impossible target, but Rayados snuck in on the last weekend of the regular season.
The turnaround hasn't been a complete surprise. Despite the shaky start to the season, this is a squad built to win trophies. Along with city rivals Tigres, Monterrey -- owned by beverage giant FEMSA -- has one of the most expensively-assembled squads on the American continent and plays in one of the best soccer-specific stadiums in the Americas.
But more than tactical tweaks from Mohamed since taking over, the key element in the uptick has been the squad uniting after that spell of poor form.
"The group has made us get this far," said defender Nico Sanchez earlier this month. "You can talk about football, about tactics and whatever you want, but it is the group that has helped us get out of that dark moment."
Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Vincent Janssen is probably the best known Monterrey player outside of the Americas, but the fact he has been mainly used from the bench this season tells you something of Rayados' strength in depth. It may not have worked out for Janssen at Spurs, but he's still a 25-year-old with 17 caps for the Netherlands. Janssen is, however, unlikely to feature at the Club World Cup due to injury.
This is an experienced Rayados side. The team's average age in its last Liga MX game against Necaxa was 28.7 years.
Celso Ortiz or Jonathan Gonzalez play the holding role, with Carlos Rodriguez -- an outstanding Mexican talent -- given more license to go forward alongside him in central midfield. Out wide, Dorlan Pabon and Jesus Gallardo seem to be Mohamed's preferred choices, with one of Rogelio Funes Mori or Janssen as the No. 9.
This game against Liverpool is huge for Rodolfo Pizarro, who will likely play behind Funes Mori. The 25-year-old is desperate to move to Europe, has finally established himself with El Tri in 2019 and ESPN has learned that Pizarro has a release clause exclusively for European clubs that could facilitate a move, should teams be interested.
Silver-haired playmaker Pizarro is one of Liga MX's most talented players and he'll be looking to use to the Liverpool game to garner some attention on the other side of the Atlantic. The same could be said of fellow Mexico internationals Rodriguez, Gonzalez and even Montes.
"Hopefully this opportunity is taken advantage of by some of the players," said former Sevilla defender Layun before setting off to Qatar. "I think those that are here [with Monterrey] are ready [to move to Europe] and are being followed, it's difficult to think they aren't."
The issue previous coach Alonso seemed to have was how to harness all the attacking talent at his disposal into a balanced team. He struggled. But Mohamed has found success through a pragmatic 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation and keeping the likes of Layun, Maxi Meza and Jonathan Urretaviscaya on the bench, instead of shoehorning them into a system that doesn't suit the overall team. All three of those have played for their national teams: Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay.
"Monterrey I think can compete well with Liverpool, we'll see how big the difference is, I don't think there's that much difference," said Al-Sadd head coach Xavi Hernandez after Saturday's game. "Obviously we're talking about Liverpool, which is maybe the team in best form anywhere in the world, but Monterrey has a very good team."
Unlike many Liga MX teams, Monterrey doesn't always seek to have the ball and is at its best when it attacks more directly at pace, especially through wingers Gallardo and Pabon. Mohamed's team also won't be afraid of playing balls into Funes Mori when Liverpool press high.
Against Liverpool, the plan is to be aggressive, win the ball back high up the field and force Jurgen Klopp's side into making mistakes, rather than sitting back and trying to hold out.
"If we play just to defend, we aren't going to have a chance," said Mohamed. "Why not look to score the first goal? First of all we have to look to do them damage. That will be the strategy."
It's a tough ask, but a team with Monterrey's international experience shouldn't be overawed, even if Xavi was likely being kind when talking about minimal differences in quality.
In terms of preparation, Liverpool's Premier League and cup commitments have been talked about at length, but it's not been easy for Monterrey, either.
From Nov. 23 until setting off to Qatar on Dec. 8, Monterrey played five high-intensity Liga MX games in the space of 16 days to reach the Apertura final. The players did travel in a luxurious plane that even the players couldn't help taking bucket-loads of photos in, but the trip from Mexico to Qatar took 17 hours and the time zone is nine hours ahead of Mexico. Rayados players have struggled.
"I can't take this!" wrote Gallardo on Instagram last Wednesday. "What day is it? What time is it? Is it night or day?"
The performance against Al-Sadd wasn't up to standard, despite the victory, and the players complained afterwards about the heavy pitch and tiredness towards the end of the game.
The time difference and travel isn't nearly as demanding for Liverpool, but Monterrey will have been in Qatar for nine days come Wednesday and the hope is that will play in its favor.
"The time change, the tough travel, the pitch; now we have to make it play in our favor," said Rodolfo Pizarro on Saturday. "[We have to] play a very physical game, press for 90 minutes, run and push them as much as possible."
Those inside the club are now looking at a Club World Cup final -- if Rayados can shock the world -- or, most likely, a third-place playoff on Dec. 21, followed by another long trip back to Monterrey to host the Liga MX final first leg at home (Dec. 26) and then the return leg at altitude in Mexico City (Dec. 29).
It's a tough schedule to end the decade and it could still end in disappointment, but it is one that Rayados are delighted to have to navigate.