The numbers appear to favor No. 1 León, but you can never count out América.
The top-seeded Esmeraldas of León host No. 5 América Sunday night with a trip to the Liga MX Finals on the line. After León earned a 1-0 road win in the first leg despite not playing up to their recent standards, many pundits have penciled the Esmeraldas into the Grand Final.
León has won 16 of its past 17 games and has an 8-1-1 home record (including playoffs) with a 23 to 8 goal-scoring differential. The last time the Esmeraldas lost at home was on Jan. 20 to Tijuana. Furthermore, León coach Ignacio Ambriz has never lost to América in seven games, boasting a 4-3-0 record.
On the opposite side of the ledger, América coach Miguel Herrera holds the league record for most losses in the semifinals with 11 (including Thursday night’s 1-0 setback). Six times in the playoffs, a Miguel Herrera-led Aguilas team lost the first game of a series and only twice have they overcome the deficit to advance. But in both instances, the second game was played at Estadio Azteca.
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But like they say “never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
One moment of inspiration
In the first leg loss, América disrupted León flowing offense with physical play and fouls. The Aguilas slowed down the game effectively and limited León’s possession in attacking positions. But at the same time, the stop-and-start rhythm during the first 45 minutes prevented the Aguilas from developing any fluidity on offense.
All it took was one spark of inspired offense for the Esmeraldas to make their mark. With 20 minutes remaining, León moved out from their defensive end with possession and flowed to the left side where Joel Campbell, Rubens Sambueza and William Tesillo played monkey in the middle against an América defender, triangulating the ball in a small area along the sideline.
Then Sambueza sprinted toward the box and Campbell filtered to captain Luis Montes in between lines. Montes one-times a pass into the path of Sambueza who was open down the left channel, he dribbled once and squared across to José Juan Macías who was racing down the right side, and the teen striker punched home the goal as he slid toward the back post. It was breathtaking and América had been lulled to sleep.
Esmeraldas frustrate champs
Despite the loss, the Aguilas had played a decent game. Once they abandoned their strategy of fouling, they began to create scoring chances. Striker Nico Castillo barely missed a shot from the slot when the game was still scoreless and seconds after León scored he forced a splendid reflex save from Esmeraldas goalie Rodolfo Cota.
Cota finished the game with five saves, including a diving parry of a shot by Andrés Ibarguen that looked like the equalizer in minute 82. The veteran goalie also made a key save of a bullet free kick by Emanuel Aguilera late on. América even outshot León 14 to 7 and had 5 shots on goal to León 2. The Aguilas also saw a goal disallowed for offside in the dying minutes.
But the Esmeraldas remained disciplined on defense and reduced América’s shooting angles, keeping the wingers wide and closely marking players in the box.
What can América do?
América might return to a strategy physical intimidation but by now they must suspect that León is a disciplined team that keeps its composure. For the rough tactics to pay off, the Aguilas will have to transition more effectively and sustain longer offensive forays.
Coach Herrera will be without defensive midfielder Edson Álvarez again (he suffered a leg injury in the season finale and has missed all three playoff games so far). Matheus Uribe has not been as productive, but he does not deserve to bear the blame. Nico Castillo has yet to score in these playoffs and some pundits are calling for him to be replaced by Henry Martin.
One key match-up to watch is the battle on América’s right wing where Renato Ibarra faces the challenge of getting past left back William Tesillo. The Colombian defender pestered Ibarra in the first leg and held him to three scoring chances created. In the quarterfinals against Cruz Azul, Ibarra was a constant threat, getting deep and sending dangerous crosses into the box with regularity.
Another critical point for América will be to crowd Luis Montes. The León skipper was brilliant in the first game. The diminutive Montes tracked back on defense, moved the ball out of danger smoothly, probed the América defense effectively and created a couple scoring chances.
If the Aguilas are going to defend their title, they must read-and-react on defense (not an easy task with five skillful attackers to watch: Macías, Montes, Sambueza, the league’s top scorer Angel Mena and Joel Campbell). They must also find the target with their shots and take advantage of all free kicks. León was strong against América’s set pieces, including five corner kicks, none of which produced an unsettling moment for the Esmeraldas.
Last season, América made a habit of improbable, late-game comebacks. They will need to rediscover that recipe if they hope to return to the Final.