Photo: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
By Kyle McCarthy
1. The fairytale continues: Tijuana played its first match less than a decade ago. It reached the Mexican first division in 2011. It won its first title in 2012. And now it has advanced to the quarterfinals of the Copa Bridgestone Libertadores by registering the fourth Mexican victory on Brazilian soil.
In stark contrast to the two other Mexican clubs – Club América and C.D. Guadalajara – to win an away match in Brazil, Tijuana operates on a relatively modest budget and relies on a small squad of players to achieve laudable results. This triumph isn’t a fluke: it is the product of a cohesive unit of dedicated and savvy operators capable of winning against any opponent in North or South America on the right day. Antonio Mohamed has worked wonders to lift this club into a quarterfinal tie against Atlético Minero.
2. Credit Tijuana’s victory to a stout defensive shape: Tijuana prefers to play a counterattacking style well suited for continental play and Mohamed astutely adhered to it for this match. The game plan – retain the necessary structure and then wait for the opportune moment to break forward with pace – made perfect sense for this tie against a Palmeiras side that had scored just five goals in seven Libertadores matches coming into this match. Mohamed and his players dared Palmeiras to carve them open and win the tie. The Brazilians tried their best to do so (particularly in the second half), but they failed to come to terms with Tijuana’s resolute line (offside time and time again), lacked the quality to score from the run of play and suffered the consequences of their defensive lapses.
3. Tijuana’s ability to punish mistakes: The visitors generated two decent chances in the game and scored on both of them. Duvier Riascos found himself on the end of the first opportunity after deft work from Joe Corona and Fidel Martínez and nearly squandered it with a tame shot. Bruno offered Riascos a reprieve by allowing the effort to squirm through him for the opener after 27 minutes. Fernando Arce accepted a somewhat less generous gift presented by a poor clearing header and thumped the loose clearance into the net for the second goal shortly after halftime.
4. Xolos’ ability to ride through a tempestuous affair: Tijuana kept its shape well, but it did struggled to maintain its composure early in this fraught game. Players from both sides flew into tackles and flailed their elbows for much of the first half. Referee Juan Soto booked eight different players in the opening stanza (including five Xolos) in a bid to control the proceedings. Soto received a reprieve when Arce collected the second goal shortly after halftime and forced both teams to focus on the task at hand.
Tijuana adapted to the altered landscape and sidestepped the potentially crippling blow of a red card early in the second half. The players didn’t concede a killer second (despite the odd wobble) when Soto handed Palmeiras a dodgy penalty for a Pablo Aguilar handball on the hour and threw the home side an unwarranted life line. Aguilar eventually departed for his second bookable offense (an inevitability for some player in a match with 12 total cautions), but that misstep arrived at a point when the visitors could manage the fallout appropriately.
5. Tijuana faces a tall defensive task when Atletico Mineiro visits for the first leg: Mohamed and his players reached this point in the competition due in large part to their work at Estadio Caliente. Their unblemished defensive record in Mexico will come under strict examination from a Mineiro side capable of leaning on the talents of Bernard (a rumored target for Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund), Jô (top scorer in the competition with six goals) and Ronaldinho to tear teams apart (6-1 aggregate winners over Sao Paulo).
It is exactly the sort of scenario where experience is required, but Mohamed faces the uncomfortable prospect of naming a revamped tandem in central defense for the tie. Aguilar triggered an automatic one-match ban with his late dismissal against Palmeiras. Javier Gandolfi also exited the match with an undisclosed knock after 72 minutes. If Gandolfi joins Aguilar on the sidelines for the first leg, then Tijuana faces a monumental task to prevent Mineiro from seizing control of the tie.