With the regular season finished, it’s time for the local leagues to enter into cuadrangulares.
The Liga Águila is trimmed down to eight contenders for the title in a season where inconsistency was king. None of the teams won more than half their games and the difference between the leader and number nine was only four points. Now they are drawn into two groups of four who’ll play a full competition. The group winners play a two-leg final for the second league title of 2019.
Finishing first in the regular season Atlético Nacional, Junior de Barranquilla, Deportes Tolima and Cúcuta Deportivo have been drawn together. Los Verdolagas were barely challenged this season. It gave the inventive manager Juan Carlos Osorio the opportunity to experiment with his side. One of their revelations has been Daniel Muñoz, the now 23-year-old midfielder is a boyhood fan, as he was a member of Nacional’s ultras Los del Sur in his childhood.
He was signed before this season after impressing at Rionegro Águilas as a right back, but under Osorio the versatile player really stood out in central midfield. The dynamic player has developed himself into a quality box-to-box player who even received a call-up for the national team, an invitation he couldn’t make due to an injury.
Nacional won’t be happy to see Junior de Barranquilla in their group. The current back-to-back champion struggled midway through the season, but a strong run towards the end ensured they are again one of the favourites. Their main issue has been to find the back of the net, the side with the tightest defence this season scored just 16 goals as their polemic striker Teo Gutiérrez found the net only twice.
Central midfielder Victor Cantillo, who had a lacklustre start to the season, guided his team to the playoffs with some great performances towards the end of the season. Youngster Luis ‘El Chino’ Sandoval was given a vote of confidence by manager Julio Avellino Comesaña and showed he is one to watch in the playoffs.
Deportes Tolima is another strong candidate for the league final. The team from Ibagué has proven to be a tough opponent for Nacional, beating them a staggering six times in a row in the past year-and-a-half before seeing their unbeaten streak end last time out. Manager Alberto Gamero plays a very direct game with Tolima with lots of long balls and strong, tall players, they looked like they were going to miss out for the top eight. A young creative player, however, turned things around.
19-year-old Jaminton Campaz, in 2017 picked as Guardian Next-Generation Young Talent, was brought in by Gamero as a creative midfielder and Campaz is very much living up to his promise. With great vision and golden left foot, he was the most important player in their seven match undefeated streak with 4 goals and 3 assists for the youngster.
Cúcuta Deportivo is the dark horse in this group. Allegedly, a player strike due to players not being paid was only just avoided in their penultimate game, with the players coming out on the pitch at the last minute and going on to win the game. According to sources around the team the payment issues are solved for the moment, but in a very strong group, they are the obvious underdogs for the final.
The other group contains resurrected rolos Independiente Santa Fe, the Cali derby, and season surprise Alianza Petrolera.
Independiente Santa Fe had without a doubt the most incredible story of this season. The Bogotanos had a disastrous start of the season and were rock bottom throughout most of it. After eight games, they had collected only two points, it had already cost one manager his job and relegation was a topic.
But a spectacular turnaround, managed by Harold Rivera, who had brought Union Magdalena to the top division the year before, meant they made the playoffs. Two derby victories against Millonarios and a seven-game winning streak without conceding a goal was the base for their resurrection and they finished with the second fewest conceded.
América de Cali had a fairly inconsistent season but with a strong finish they ended up finishing second in the table. América signed Michael Rangel as their new striker and that proved to be a success. The 28-year-old journeyman, now at his ninth team in Colombia, was key in holding up the ball and his nine goals were valuable reaching the cuadrangulares.
Deportivo Cali were playing on two fronts as they also reached the final of the Copa Águila, they lost goalkeeper Camilo Vargas at the start of the season and failed to replace him properly, but despite the lack of stability at the back – Cali conceded 25 goals in 20 games – and resting their best players on several occasions, they won the games they needed to win to qualify for the top eight.
Alianza Petrolera was the biggest relegation candidate at the start of this season, being several points behind a safe spot, but after a string of 1-0 victories (seven throughout the season), they suddenly found themselves in the lead and an important candidate to make the playoffs. They are the outsider for the final in this group, as they finished the season quite poorly, as they went eight games without victory.
Independiente Medellín were hit hardest, they missed out on the playoffs by one point, finishing only four points behind the leaders. The team with super striker Germán Cano, author of a staggering 41 goals in all competitions this year, missed out for the playoffs for the second season in a row. It wasn’t all bad news as el rojo de la montaña won the cup final and saw Cano finally win his first prize in five years at Medellín.
Atlético Huila and Unión Magdalena both saw their stay at the highest level come to an end. Huila struggled the entire year and got relegated having gone through four managers in one year. Unión Magdalena reached the playoffs in the first season, sacked their manager and were shocking in the second half of the year, going down in their first year back at the highest level.