America produced one of the all-time classic comebacks to lift the Liga MX trophy after all had appeared to be lost.
When the heavens opened and the rain started to fall just before kickoff at the Estadio Azteca on Sunday, and over 100,000 fans screamed as the teams came out of the tunnel, you suspected that something special was likely to happen in one of the world’s most mystical soccer stadiums.
Just how special the final between America and Cruz Azul would turn out to be, nobody could’ve predicted.
Moises Munoz became the hero and will go down in not just America folklore, but also in the history of the Mexican game, after scoring with a diving header in the dying seconds to make the score 2-1 and take the tie into extra time. America eventually took the title after winning the penalty shootout 4-2.
"We are all heroes,” said Munoz after the game on TV. “We left our hearts and souls on the pitch. We never lost faith."
He’s right. It was the whole America team’s collective will that culminated in Munoz’s goal and the victory, which looked unlikely after Jesus Molina was sent off for bringing down Pablo Barrera in just the 14th minute and Teofilo Gutierrez scored in the 20th to mean America needed two goals just to take the tie into extra time.
It would be easy to write about how Miguel Herrera perhaps waited too long after Molina got sent off to make a substitution, with Gutierrez scoring in the meantime, but it would be out of place considering that Herrera’s personality was stamped all over America’s eventual triumph.
There was passion, there was an undying belief and there was a willingness to throw caution to the wind and forcibly go for those two goals instead of sitting back, hoping to steal an opportunity to get back into the game. Slow-motion shots of Herrera during the penalty shootout and his wild celebrations show how desperate he has been to win a title for America.
Herrera has previously said the only job he would leave America for is the Mexican national team coach. Lifting the Liga MX trophy moves him one step closer to that.
Cruz Azul will feel hard done by and did have chances on the counterattack to put the game well and truly to bed, but Herrera felt his side deserved it over the two games.
“(We were) the team that pushed forward and took the game to them even in the first leg,” explained the coach, who had previously lost two finals. “I never thought that it was lost, we never let our guard down.”
Munoz put it even more strongly: “We were always superior to Cruz Azul. We showed it here and we showed it in their stadium.”
In terms of pure emotion, however, Sunday’s game is difficult to top. It was a good advert for Mexican soccer and the Liga MX, after last week’s negativity regarding teams getting sold and moved to different parts of the country.
There were a number of subplots to the America win.
Firstly, the Mexico City big-spenders moved to 11 league titles to equal the all-Mexican Chivas – its arch rival - as the country’s most successful team.
That fact means a lot to America fans, especially with Chivas having a lot of work to do in order to challenge for the Liga MX anytime soon. Another America title looks much more likely.
Even worse for Chivas fans, center back Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez became the first ever player to win the title for both Chivas and America, having returned to Europe to play for Las Aguilas.
“This (title) tastes better because a lot of people unjustly criticized me,” said Maza after the game.
The final also drew the curtains on the career of Diego Reyes in Mexico, with the America center back departing to Porto having won the Liga MX championship.
It was a bittersweet night for Reyes, who was visibly disappointed to be sacrificed after the red card, but who has all the necessary talent to become one of Mexico’s best ever exports. The title win was added confirmation that he goes to the other side of the pond as an America legend.
For Cruz Azul, the “eternal runner-up” tag has just reached a whole new level. The side was a few minutes from winning the league and cup double and wiping away almost 16 years of hurt in searching for its ninth league title.
Coach Guillermo Vazquez admitted he will consider his future and sporting director Alberto Quintano resigned straight after the game.
But the night belongs to America, who produced one of the all-time classic comebacks against the odds to lift the Liga MX trophy.