Manuel Veth –
At the beginning of the Clausura, it appeared that the 43-year-old Francisco Palencia would be Mexico’s answer to Jürgen Klopp. The always well-dressed head coach of Pumas has his team play some of the most attractive football in the league.
A fan of heavy metal Palencia always appears extremely well dressed on the sidelines. The native of Mexico City spent his playing career with Cruz Azul, Espanyol Barcelona, Guadalajara, Chivas USA, and Pumas. An attacking player by trade Palencia took the attacking approach when he was appointed as Pumas’ head coach in May 2016.
It was Palencia’s first head coach position in professional football. His predecessor Guillermo Vázquez won the Clausura with Pumas in 2011. He then guided the club to the Apertura final against Tigres in the 2015-16 season. But after missing the Liguilla entirely in the 2015-16 Liga MX Clausura was replaced with Palencia.
Francisco Palencia managed Pumas to a Liguilla finish in the Apertura
Palencia then managed to return Pumas to the Liguilla in the Apertura of the 2016-17 season. Playing an attractive style of football Pumas scored 28 goals, and conceded 22. Palencia, however, sacrificed defensive stability and was punished for it in the first round of the Apertura Liguilla when Pumas were eliminated 7-2 on aggregate by eventual champions Tigres.
The general feeling, however, was that Palencia was close in guiding Pumas back to another Liga MX championship. As a result, the club signed Chilean striker Nicolás Castillo from Club Bruges and Chilean attacking midfielder Bryan Rabello in a loan deal from Santos Laguna. With Castillo in the a significant, Palencia was deemed one of the most exciting coaches in Liga MX.
Nico Castillo has scored eight goals in ten games and has been a real hit in the Liga MX. The striker, however, has struggled with match fitness in the second half of the Clausura. Castillo last scored two goals in Pumas’ 2-3 defeat to Club América on March 19. He then missed four games until April 12 when he returned in Pumas’ 1-1 draw against Atlas.
In his absence, Pumas have dropped out of the Liguilla race. His return was therefore highly anticipated among Pumas’ fans. But he failed to score against Atlas showing that he still struggles somewhat with fitness.
As a result, Palencia decided not to start the Chilean on matchday 15 against relegation candidate Veracruz. But the game ended in disaster. Pumas lost the game 2-0, and Castillo, and head coach Palencia were sent off towards the end of the match.
The Liguilla race is extremely tight this season with eight teams now competing for what is essentially one remaining Liguilla playoff spot. Just three points currently separate eight-placed Pachuca to 15th spot Necaxa. The tight playoff race means that Pumas could still make the playoffs. But the recent trend and the fact that Castillo might face a lengthy suspension will put La Universidad at a major disadvantage in the playoff race.
Liguilla could determine Palencia’s future
Pumas now have a date with Monarcas Morelia, who are in the awkward position of having to play both for a Liguilla spot, but also against relegation. Morelia are currently in 11th place, one spot ahead of Pumas, in the table. They then host Puebla, who can neither get relegated or make the playoffs.
Francisco Palencia will have to obtain six points from the last two matches in the Clausura to have a realistic chance to reach the Liguilla. The playoffs have shown in the past that they have to be seen separately from what happens in the regular season. A deep playoff run could, therefore, salvage what has been a difficult second half of the Clausura for Pumas.
For Palencia reaching the Liguilla could give him time to continue his project at Pumas. But failing to reach the playoffs could potentially mean the end of his time in Mexico City. Francisco Palencia is certainly one of the most exciting coaches in Mexican football at the moment, but the young coach needs to show that he can get Pumas through the current crisis. It is perhaps the biggest test of his still young career and could define whether he will become a good coach or an outstanding coach.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.