Liga MX champs!
Liga MX champs!
Club León took a substantive step toward its sixth title with a 2-0 victory over holders Club América in the first leg of the Liga MX Apertura final on Thursday night.
Carlos Peña opened the scoring inside the opening quarter of an hour to offer León a tangible foothold from its fine first half display. América responded after the interval, but Mauro Boselli sumptuously chipped home the critical second in the final 15 minutes to secure a positive result at the Nou Camp.
The margin of victory affords León a modest cushion ahead of the second leg at Estadio Azteca on Sunday night. América possess ample motivation – the prospect of a record 12th title in Miguel Herrera’s final game in charge – to overturn the deficit. Las Águilas’ formidable home record in Mexico City offers hope of procuring the result required to claim a second championship in succession, but there is still plenty of work ahead for the holders.
Both teams will spend the next two days recovering before the return leg in the capital on Sunday. They will assess a few of the key points — including the five to follow here — as they plot their path to the summit of Mexican soccer.
1. León stamps its intent early: The home side grasped control of the first half from the outset. The back-and-forth tempo encouraged León to push numbers forward and unsettle América’s back five. América plays directly and quickly, but the cadence of the early stages moved too quickly for the holders. León used that brisk pace to create chances and eventually prompt the opening goal.
2. Peña imposes his will: Peña exposed Herrera’s decision to name both Osvaldo Martínez and Rubens Sambueza in his midfield three with his tireless industry in the center of the park. His relentless work piled pressure on América every time he touched the ball. His work on the opening goal — seeing a loose clearance from a corner kick, sprinting to the ball in front of his man and thumping it past Moisés Muñoz from the edge of the penalty area — neatly captured his considerable contributions on the evening.
3. América responds after the break: Herrera motivated his side at the interval and watched his players improve substantially at the star of the second half. By obtaining more of the ball and using it more judiciously, The visitors prevented León from turning the match into a track meet once more. The improved width and the reinforced work through the middle created opportunities. Martínez even forced a good save from the unsteady William Yarbrough on a half-volley. It just didn’t lead to the goal required to consolidate after such a promising spell.
4. Boselli punishes América for its inability to grab the equalizer: The second goal came from a typically determined Peña run through the middle. Maza Rodríguez intervened and tackled the ball straight into Boselli’s path. The former Wigan striker allowed the ball to slide all the way across his body before he clipped it neatly over Munoz for the second. His precise display of skill rescued an otherwise mundane half for León and sent the home side into a promising position.
5. León might rue the chances squandered in the final stages: América buckled in the wake of Boselli’s goal. León perked up considerably given the additional impetus. It nearly caught Muñoz out on one or two occasions, but a backward header from an unsuspecting Rodríguez glanced over the bar in the waning seconds of the game. The difference between a two-goal and a three-goal deficit is a substantial one. If América storms out as expected on Sunday evening, then León might lament its inability to kill off this tie on home soil.
Intrigue permeates through the first leg of the Liguilla final. This spectacle hardly needs reinforcing given the attention lavished upon the battle for the Mexican title, but this pairing between Club América and Club León somehow manages the feat.
The story lines paint a picture worth following. América is poised to lift its record 12th championship and win back-to-back titles under departing manager Miguel Herrera. León is primed to intercede with its mixture of emerging talents and savvy veterans.
It is a clash of old and new with one clever twist: Herrera directed Mexico to the World Cup using a combination of core players from both teams. He integrated Rafa Márquez, Luis Montes and Carlos Peña into the base of his title-winning side to form the foundation during his interim spell in charge. The results produced a comprehensive victory over New Zealand in a two-legged World Cup playoff in November and provided a template for the upcoming trip to Brazil.
Herrera will turn his attention to El Tri’s excursion after this tie, but he must lead Las Aguilas past his future charges to fulfill his last remaining objective before he departs. The budding relationship between the involved parties adds an extra layer of familiarity to a series where every slight edge matters.
The two teams enter this affair on fairly level pegging. León’s incisive attack — fueled from midfield by Montes and Peña and topped by Mauro Boselli up front to produce 12 goals in four Liguilla matches — poses a massive threat. América leans on its direct play from back to front and its resolute defensive core (on display in the 2-0 home victory against Toluca to keep the title defense in charge) to pressure and stifle the opposition.
In a final with such narrow margins between the adversaries, the outcome could turn on Herrera’s considerable knowledge of his three national team players or their ability to probe the weaknesses of the system they implement on international duty. The first leg may not play out according to that plan, but the mere presence of those links bodes well for El Tri as Herrera finishes up his duties with América and prepares to build his squad for the World Cup.
—Images provided by Getty.