The Monarcas harried and harassed León for 108 minutes, finding a late equalizer in the first leg of their quarterfinal series.
The Liga MX playoffs started off with a bang … and León has the bruises to prove it, thanks to Morelia.
Host Morelia’s rough-and-tumble tactics paid off in the end, however, and the No. 7 seed Monarcas found the game-tying goal in minute 90+11 (yes, that’s right “+11”).
The quarterfinal match-up between visiting No. 2 seed León and Morelia had two expulsions, a lengthy video replay review and plenty of heated discussions on the pitch. Ref José Alfredo Peñaloza added 12 minutes of time after both teams were removed from the field because the local fans had begun shouting the offending chant that the Liga MX is trying to eliminate.
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Back on the field, Morelia’s Luis Mendoza headed home a nifty centering pass from Efraín Velarde after León’s rickety defense broke down in the box to tie the game 3-3.
The return match will be played in León on Saturday night, a game the Monarcas must win to advance, but they’ll have to do it without stalwart defender Gabriel Achilier.
The play that might determine the series took place just 3 minutes into the match. Joel Campbell fed José Juan Macías inside the box and just as the 20-year-old striker prepared to shoot, Morelia defender Sebastián Vegas took him down with a rugged tackle, committing a penalty in the process. Macías was able to take the ensuing spot kick, but went off to have his ankle taped. As soon as he re-entered the pitch, Achilier whacked him on the bad ankle.
It was obvious that there was something wrong with Macías and his limping became more noticeable. León’s talisman was forced off at the 17-minute mark. By that time, Morelia had knotted the score when Edison Flores thumped home a shot from outside the box.
Morelia had opened the match determined to knock León off their game … literally. The Monarcas relied on a “hockey-style” defense: Take the man, not the ball. Ref Peñaloza whistled 12 fouls against Morelia in the first half and not a single one was a ticky-tack foul. Four Morelia players were shown yellow cards, too (including Achilier).
Even so, the Esmeraldas were able to fluidly execute their motion offense from time-to-time and it took one quick sequence to retake the lead. Ismael Sosa found space in the middle of the field and dribbled toward the box before laying off to Jean Meneses down the left channel. He circled back out top and fed Iván Ochoa who swiftly sent it square to Angel Mena near the half moon. Morelia’s Rodrigo Millar went for the steal but Ochoa’s pass was perfect. Mena controlled, teed up the ball and drilled a shot low into the left corner. It was 2-1 León at minute 18.
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The lead was short-lived as Flores scored again just past the half-hour mark. Once again, León dropped back too deep into their own zone and Flores had plenty of room near the top of the box to get off a clean shot.
Morelia finally slacked off its physical play somewhat, relying more on aggressive double-teams rather than simply knocking León players off their feet.
Three minutes after half time, right back Fernando Navarro joined the attack and crisply executed a half-turn before blasting a left-footer into the net for a 3-2 León lead. Only three minutes after that, Achillier was sent to the locker room for a back-handed slap across Sosa’s face as he tried to create space.
As the rough stuff continued, León seemed to lose intensity and focus, squandering several chances to extend their lead. Ref Peñaloza appeared reluctant to show more yellow cards and that seemed to encourage the Monarcas who committed 13 more fouls in the second half. León’s Mena came in for several scything tackles that went unpunished.
In minute 71, Esmeraldas left back Yair Moreno was shown red for a phantom foul and both teams were down to 10 men, setting the stage for Morelia’s late equalizer.