Gignac VAN CCL

FRENCH FIREPOWER: TFC look to bottle up star striker Andre-Pierre Gignac

TORONTO — A quarterfinal date may be a touch early, but after all, this is exactly what the CONCACAF Champions League is all about.

Wednesday night will see a true clash of champions at BMO Field, as 2017 MLS Cup winners Toronto FC will host Liga MX 2017 Apertura winners Tigres UANL in the first leg of the 2018 CCL quarterfinals.

“We're excited to play them,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said on Tuesday. “It's early in the season for us. [But] once you're in Champions League you can run into any one of these teams from Mexico, who are all very capable. You have to be on your game to get the result. Whether it's Chivas, Club America, any of these teams, or Tigres. It doesn't matter.”

Both teams progressed through their Round of 16 ties to set up the encounter — Toronto defeated the Colorado Rapids and Tigres knocked off Herediano. That the champions of the region's largest leagues would meet at this stage feels premature, but that is the nature of the competition.

“The draw happens as the draw happens; you play [who] you play,” said Vanney. “Along the way you have to beat the teams you have beat. That's how you become champion of CONCACAF. It's not easy.”

Among the numerous threats Tigres possess, one is at least familiar to Vanney and his side: Andre-Pierre Gignac.

The French striker has been nearly unstoppable since moving to Mexico in 2015, winning three league titles, finishing as top-scorer in the 2016 Clausura and collecting the Balon de Oro for 2015-16.

“We've watched a fair amount of Tigres over the weeks,” Vanney said. “[Gignac] is a very good player, very clever around the box, can be used in different ways: sometimes as a second forward, [Enner] Valencia will stay high, threaten space, and Gignac will drop into the midfield and arrive in the box. He's a very good striker: finding space, getting open, getting things on goal, clever about different types of finishes.”

Luckily, this will not be the first time Toronto's defense have laid eyes on the danger man.

“I played him many times in [Ligue 1],” TFC defender Chris Mavinga said. “He's very good in the box. Don't let him shoot, he's always on target.”

“We need to concentrate, have to block every time they cross to him,” Mavinga added. “It's good to play against a player like this, you can know which level you have. It will be a great game.”

It is not just Mavinga who knows Gignac well.

Benoit Cheyrou, who retired in the offseason to join the TFC Academy staff, spent four seasons with Gignac at Olympique Marseille.

“He's very motivated each time he steps on the field, very passionate about the game as well,” Cheyrou said. “He has a very good right foot, very powerful; likes to come from the left, cut inside and find the back of the net on the opposite side. He's very physical, likes the challenges. Very, very good in front of the net.”

Months after Cheyrou left France for MLS, Gignac made the move to Mexico. Both have stocked their trophy cabinets since.

“He's done great in Mexico, very successful: team won a lot of titles; individually rewarded. One of the top players in Liga MX history, maybe,” added Cheyrou of the trailblazing move. “If it's not too cold in Toronto, maybe [TFC] are going to be in trouble with that kind of player in the box.”

That said, Cheyrou may be the secret weapon in making sure Gignac is not at his best: “He's one of my best friends, we keep in touch. I can't wait to see him.”

“I'm going to visit him,” a smiling Cheyrou said. “Make sure he's not in good shape for this game.”