GUADALAJARA - Bring on Sunday’s Liga MX final second leg.
A breathless first leg in Estadio Leon ended 3-2 to away side Pachuca on Thursday, with end-to-end action between two clubs owned by Grupo Pachuca producing a memorable occasion.
This wasn’t a game for defensive purists.
Mexico international Carlos Pena struck the crossbar for Leon with a lofted shot within the first ten minutes. If you take a still of the move, you see Rafa Marquez down the right flank and center back partner Nacho Gonzalez inside the opposition’s penalty area.
At times in the first half, Leon looked like swamping Pachuca, whose defense was far too deep and invited pressure onto it.
The fluid, attacking philosophy of Leon coach Gustavo Matosas is etched onto the DNA of the reigning Liga MX champion and players are allowed a lot of freedom. It has made Leon the best team in the league to watch, but the lack of defensive aptitude once again came back to haunt La Fiera, as it did in the Copa Libertadores.
After Carlos Pena had headed in for Leon’s opener in the 34th minute, goals from Ecuadorian international Enner Valencia either side of halftime handed Pachuca the lead and a strike from 18-year-old Hirving Lozano made it 3-1 to Los Tuzos.
All three goals came from defensive errors – the first two from poor marking from set-pieces and the third from the back four being out of place and ‘keeper William Yarbrough not being in the center of his goal.
Marquez also put in another performance of concern, with a volatile verbal attack against the referee leading to a yellow card. It was another act of petulance from El Tri’s skipper and one that will worry Mexico coach Miguel Herrera with the World Cup less than a month away.
But Leon wasn’t the only culprit when it came to poor defending.
Pachuca’s Miguel Herrera jumped for a header and ended up flicking the ball past the age-defying Oscar “Conejo” Perez to bring Leon back to 3-2.
In terms of tactics, vastly-experienced Pachuca coach Enrique Meza was astute enough to bring off Abraham Carreno before halftime and replace him with 18-year-old midfielder Erick Gutierrez, a move which stemmed Leon’s offensive midfielders Luis Montes and Pena.
But the real story on Thursday was Pachuca’s youngsters.
The outfield starters for Los Tuzos had an average age of just 23.1 years, which fell to 22.3 when Gutierrez came on.
Early on, the nerves showed. In one move in the first five minutes, Lozano received the ball in the center of the pitch, with Leon’s defenders out of position and Rodolfo Pizarro making a lung-busting run down the right from fullback. The winger woefully over-hit the pass.
After Leon opened the scoring, it looked like it could be a long night for Pachuca, but Valencia’s goal calmed the nerves and Los Tuzos began to play.
Lozano seems a like a genuine prospect, as does Pizarro with the comfort he shows on the ball. Jurgen Damm didn’t have his best game, but the star of the youngsters was Dieter Villalpando.
The 22-year-old was playing in Mexico’s third division just six months ago, but was assured on the ball and displayed a wide range of passing to match his skill and vision in the attacking midfield role.
Keeping Valencia in the offseason may prove tricky for Pachuca, but the raw material is there for this team to grow together and mature into something a little bit special.
First though, is the small matter of the deciding match of the final.
On Sunday, both teams will go at it again in the Estadio Hidalgo. Leon is aiming to win consecutive titles, while Pachuca is hoping to obtain its sixth crown and edge that bit closer to America and Chivas on eleven.
With no away goals and both teams shaky in defense, expect another high-scoring humdinger of a game.