GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Chivas coach Matias Almeyda said on the eve of the Copa MX final against Morelia that the result of the game would have absolutely no impact on the Liga MX campaign moving forward. It was difficult to take his words at face value then and it's even tougher to do so after the fact.
Chivas won the Copa MX 3-1 on penalties after a strange game. Guadalajara dominated, but couldn't create enough to get past a sturdy Morelia defense. After a goalless 90 minutes, Chivas keeper Miguel Jimenez conjured up three saves to win the resulting penalty shootout.
"We place confidence in each one of our players," said Almeyda after the match. "Jimenez's [performance] makes me happy, he had an outstanding game."
Whatever rivals fans want to say about the Copa MX, this game meant something more than Almeyda was letting on. The atmosphere surrounding it told a story the coach didn't want to tell, at least with the result unknown beforehand. The manager himself said afterwards that Thursday would be reserved for celebration.
When Chivas won, the stadium erupted with a mighty wave of what felt like relief. The players -- all Mexican in accordance with Chivas' club policy -- bathed Almeyda in soft drink like in the NFL, mariachi entered the field for a sing-along and goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota paraded around with Angel Zaldivar, who went off in the first half with a serious-looking ankle injury.
Aside from a couple of hundred yellow-clad Morelia fans in the top corner of Estadio Chivas, the vast majority of the 42,329 fans came to see Chivas lift a trophy.
The Copa MX may not have been delivered in the most clinical fashion and there will be questions about just why Chivas couldn't create sufficient chances against an unambitious Morelia reserve side to win it in the 90 minutes, but the impact this has on the club shouldn't be diminished. It was the first time Chivas have lifted an official trophy at Estadio Chivas since it opened in 2010 and it is with occasions like these that the place begins to feel like home, following a difficult first few years for the stadium.
The context of all of this, as if anyone around Guadalajara needs reminding, is that Chivas haven't won a Liga MX title in over 10 years. For arguably Mexico's biggest club that is a very long time.
- Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) April 20, 2017
Wednesday was a reminder to everyone that Almeyda's team is on the right path. On course to make the Liga MX playoffs with three rounds of matches remaining, the side has shaken off its relegation problems -- which were very real a year ago -- and is now one of the main title contenders.
"The situation was difficult [when we arrived] and we depend on the players," Almeyda said. "The players were committed, then the [Copa MX 2015 Apertura] title came and confidence grew. In a critical moment [in the 2016 Clausura] we didn't win in around seven matches and [Chivas owner] Jorge [Vergara] stuck with us."
The 3-0 loss to Tigres last week at Estadio Universitario was a warning and Chivas certainly aren't favorites, but they'll have as good a shot as anyone at the Clausura. And after Wednesday night, the players and Almeyda will have been handed a small sample of just what a Liga MX title may taste like.
If the Copa MX trophy produced such a reaction from the Chivas faithful, a Liga MX would grant the players and coaching staff almost instant legendary status in the state of Jalisco. "[There are] lots of games left in the league," pointed out Almeyda, stressing that everyone at the club has to keep their feet on the ground with any talk of a double.
During the actual game, the outstanding performer for Chivas was Carlos Fierro, who was on loan last season at Queretaro and is now surely a starter in Almeyda's best XI. Gone are the days when he would float around on the fringes of the game, drifting in and out and producing inconsistent final products on crosses and finishes. The new-look version of Fierro is more gutsy, wants the ball and is not afraid to put himself into a position when receiving it where he might get clattered from behind by a defender.
On Wednesday, Fierro ran veteran left-back Carlos Morales ragged with his pace, width and direct running. The Sinaloa native was at the heart of most of Chivas' positive attacks in the first half and provided his squad's best chance over the 90 minutes when he turned inside and floated a perfect cross onto Alan Pulido's head, forcing a fine low save from Morelia's Sebastian Sosa.
With Isaac Brizuela out injured, Fierro has stepped up and will have to continue to do so if Chivas are to have a shot at securing the title that the whole institution and fan base so very desperately desire.
This has been another good Copa MX campaign -- the third final and second cup since Almeyda took over in the 2015 Apertura -- and has highlighted that there is now strength in depth in the squad and an ability to close out under pressure.
But this Copa MX title is only a boost. The success of this Clausura -- rightly or wrongly -- will be determined by whether Chivas can now use the cup win to propel them to greater things: namely, the 2017 Liga MX Clausura title and a famous double.