After stumbling through their first three Liguilla matches, America took advantage of Pumas’ mistakes and advanced with a great showing.
It is well-documented the disappointment fans of Club America had with this Liga MX Apertura and the first few games of La Liguilla. Despite a 14-game unbeaten run, supporters looked at this squad as under-performing and playing too conservatively for their talent-level. Despite this cynicism, there was still an expectation of Las Aguilas getting past Pumas UNAM in the semifinal to set up a Clasico Joven final.
Surprisingly, and to his credit, Miguel “Piojo” Herrera started his squad with four defenders in the back and inserted Renato Ibarra into the starting eleven for the first time in La Liguilla. That proved to be a fantastic decision. Playing wide on the right side of the pitch, Renato Ibarra provided an offensive spark right away, when the Ecuadorian took a pass for Jorge Sanchez, dribbled at a defender and pushed a shot past Pumas keeper Alfredo Saldivar, who wasn’t able to get down fast enough to stop it. Eight minutes into the match, America had the 1-0 lead and 2-1 lead in aggregate.
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Pumas were still very much alive, however, and America had scored first in every other match of La Liguilla, so there was a fear Las Aguilas would turtle and try to run out the clock, as they had done in previous matches. Carlos Gonzalez made sure that wouldn’t happen, though. In the 24th minute of the match, Pablo Barrera put a cross in from outside the box, Gonzalez came to meet it and was able to get enough of his head on it from beyond the penalty spot to slot it past a diving Agustin Marchesin. The match was tied and Pumas had put the score where America would need to hold the 1-1 score or win by multiple goals to advance.
Then, as if to say, “Anything your Paraguayan goal-leader can do, ours can do too!”, Bruno Valdez scored with a header from a Mateus Uribe corner kick won from some solid work on the ball from Diego Lainez and just four minutes after Pumas tied the match. It was Valdez’s 7th goal on the season, leading all Aguilas. The quick response took all the wind out of the Pumas sails and put the pressure back on UNAM to score another.
In the 36th minute, the wheels came off. Pressure from America, caused Saldivar to flub a clearing attempt to open space, where Renato Ibarra picked it up. Rather than put an easier pass back to Uribe, who deserved credit for the pressure that caused the error, Ibarra chipped a pass towards a streaking Roger Martinez. Falling away from the ball, Martinez put the ball in the goal with a bicycle kick and the rout was on.
In the first minute after halftime, Guido Rodriguez scored a stunner off a volley of another Mateus Uribe corner kick that bounced through the mass of bodies to find its way to the Argentinian midfielder. Four minutes later, Mateus Uribe made another beautiful pass to start a goal. In one fluid motion, the Colombian pulled the ball back from his defender and then fed it past him to Renato Ibarra who was making a run. Ibarra was sprung and fed a perfectly weighted ball across to a streaking Diego Lainez, who pounded it past Saldivar for a 5-1 lead.
Frustrated, Pumas picked up a foul in the box, as Saldivar and another Pumas player pushed Roger Martinez to the ground as he tried to keep possession of the ball before it went out for a goal-kick. The ensuing penalty-kick, a bit of an issue for America this season, was taken by Ema Aguilera. The big center back stepped up to the spot and pounded it straight down the middle and just under the cross-bar to make the score at 6-1 and put the final exclamation mark on the match in the 71st minute.
Everything that America had been criticized for up to this match was put to bed. When America plays on the front-foot, they can be devastating. Rather than sit back in a defensive shell, they decided to keep pushing forward, keeping 49% of possession, winning seven corners, and peppering Alfredo Saldivar with nine shots on target.
This is what America is capable of and what might make them the favorite in the final against Cruz Azul. Obviously Cruz Azul is a better defense than Pumas, by far, but the offensive display put on by Las Aguilas on Sunday night was unlike anything we’ve seen from them in quite some time.
The win sets up a Clasico Joven Final that pits the two best teams from the regular season against each other. It will be fascinating to see how both games being played at Estadio Azteca will affect the match, but one thing is for certain: It will be loud and electric in that stadium.