There was a moment deep into injury time in the Liga MX final first leg on Thursday that had the potential to define the series before the first game had even ended.
Fernando Navarro swung in a freekick and Rafa Marquez’s deflected header seemed to loop downwards in slow motion, with America ‘keeper Moises Munoz grounded.
But the ball didn’t nestle into the net, instead bouncing off the top side of the crossbar, meaning America lives to fight for famous consecutive championships – and its record 12th title – in the Estadio Azteca on Sunday.
Nevertheless, at 2-0 down to Leon, the team from Guanajuato state has a significant advantage and one that should see it block Miguel Herrera’s dream of winning a second title before taking over the national team.
The irony was that America – which had relied on superior finishing to get past a sprightly Tigres and a Toluca which took a lead into the second leg - was the better team and if Colombian Luis Gabriel Rey had enjoyed a better night in front of goal, it would’ve been a different story altogether.
“I liked how America played, we created opportunities, but we couldn’t finish,” said Herrera in the postgame press conference. “Now we’ll go to the Azteca to try and turn the situation around.”
Leon’s Carlos Pena was a contender for man of the match - with rumors swirling that European scouts were watching him - driving forward in the first half and drilling in the opening goal from the edge of the penalty box.
“I didn’t know (about the scouts), I just try to be really concentrated with my team, to do things well and put the cherry on the cake with this championship,” Pena told Fox TV after the game.
Scouts would’ve been impressed by a 23-year-old, who has hit the form of his life over the last few months, as perhaps would the world’s richest person Carlos Slim, who was in attendance as part of the club’s ownership group.
Leon pushed in the latter part of the second half, but after the break America showed its quality and forced Los Panzas Verdes onto the back foot, gradually turning the screw.
‘Keeper William Yarbrough was forced into a couple of fine saves, but even if Leon is slightly slow in defense and was getting overrun in midfield, it is a constant threat going forward, as 17 goals in its last five games highlighted.
Argentine striker Mauro Boselli had done very little aside from defensive work in the game, but pounced with a subtle finish in the 77th minute to grab a vital second for Leon. That was his eighth goal in his last six games.
Herrera felt aggrieved with the refereeing decisions, but the hard truth was that while his team played well, it was Leon that put the ball in the net.
Coming back is a big ask even for America, but it is aided by the fact there is no away goals rule in the Liga MX final, meaning any two-goal victory is enough to take the game to extra time.
With 100,000 tickets already sold for Sunday’s second leg, the crowd will be an important factor in driving America forward from the off and while Las Aguilas have only won one in eight Liga MX games, it has lost just once at home in 23 games during 2013.
Incredibly, America has also won seven of its last 10 home games by a margin of two goals or more.
Leon won’t sit back. It isn’t in the team or coach Gustavo Matosas’ DNA.
“We’re going to go out to win (in the Azteca),” Matosa stated at his press conference afterwards.
Sunday’s return leg really can’t come quickly enough.