Photo Credit: Francisco Vega
By Kyle McCarthy
Everything proceeded according to plan for Club Tijuana for the opening hour of the 2-2 home draw with Atlético Mineiro in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores quarterfinal tie.
Xolos manager Antonio Mohamed watched his side expose and unsettle a Mineiro side visibly uncomfortable with the unique task presented at Estadio Caliente. The home side asserted control over the proceedings early in the match (Mohamed’s unexpected switch to a 3-4-3 at the outset and the subsequent return to the normal 4-3-3 after 25 minutes or so helped a great deal) and piled the pressure on the visitors.
It eventually told. Duvier Riascos handed Tijuana a deserved opener after 32 minutes. Fidel Martínez doubled the lead at the back post inside the first 10 minutes at the second half. And the Xolos looked like they would take a comfortable and ultimately necessary advantage to Brazil ahead of the second leg.
The pair of goals placed Tijuana in a position to manage the game. The Xolos have thrived in this spot time and time again in domestic and international play. Normally, they close down the opposition – and Mineiro offered little before the second goal with Bernard withdrawn at halftime and Ronaldinho peripheral to the proceedings in his flashy flats – and see out the game with a minimum of fuss.
It didn’t happen this time. Disaster struck in the final half hour as Mineiro claimed a pair of goals against the run of play on the night and left the Xolos clinging to their Libertadores lives.
Instead of maintaining their composure at the back, the Xolos conceded two poor goals and threw away control of the tie. Both of the strikes – Diego Tardelli’s back post finish after 65 minutes and Luan’s killer equalizer in the second minute of second half stoppage time – came too easily for a side underpinned by its defensive strength. Xolos captain Javier Gandolfi, in particular, will lament his inability to hack clear in the buildup to the second goal.
Luan’s late intervention turned the acceptable status quo – both sides appeared content with 2-1 for the final 20 minutes or so and both managers made substitutions to reflect those beliefs – into a distinct advantage for Mineiro ahead of the second leg next week.
Tijuana must now either claim an outright victory or score at least twice in Belo Horizonte to keep their dreams of a place in the semifinals alive. It is a scenario they would have gladly accepted prior to the start of the competition, but it now presents something of a letdown in the wake of that ultimately disappointing first leg result.