Conservative Tigres maintain poise, frustrate Aguilas
At Estadio Azteca, the No. 3 seed Tigres took up a defensive posture, a more defensive posture than usual, that is, in an effort to protect rookie goalie Miguel Ortega who was starting in place of the injured Nahuel Guzmán.
“Tuca” Ferretti’s veteran line-up was taking no chances, moving forward only hesitantly and collapsing into the defensive zone. It was 23 minutes before the Tigres enjoyed one of their characteristic possessions: safe, careful passes, eating up time, slowing the tempo.
It was not until minute 28 that Ortega was tested. Sebastián Córdova fired a low shot from 30 meters. The debutante got behind the shot and managed to bundle it over the line for a corner kick, but he might have handled it more cleanly. Still, Ortega had passed his first test.
Of more concern was the poor play of several Tigres warhorses. Defender Hugo Ayala made a few bad clearances and midfielder Jesús Dueñas looked slow and unsteady. Defender Diego Reyes looked foolish in minute 34 when Gio dos Santos received a throw-in and made a quick spin move, leaving Reyes in the dust. Gio’s centering pass found Henry Martín all alone in front but the striker could not get his header on target.
Six minutes later, Renato Ibarra finally made a play. The speedy winger dribbled past two Tigres defenders then dropped off a pass to Paul Aguilar on right wing and the América skipper zipped a low cross into the center of the box. Ortega might have corralled the ball, but Martín was closing fast and he decided to punch it out instead only to see it go right to Richard Sánchez. The Paraguayan midfielder was unmarked and he one-timed a shot off the left post and into the net.
Coming out of the locker room at the half down 1-0, the Tigres seemed more poised and self-assured. The visitors extended their possessions and moved forward with more confidence. Five minutes in, they won a corner kick. Dueñas lifted a serene cross into the middle of the box and captain Guido Pizarro met it squarely with his head, banging a shot off the underside of the crossbar and into the net. It was 1-1 and the Aguilas were on their heels.
The Tigres began to close the net, dropping back in a disciplined alignment and choking off passing lanes. América created a scoring chance in minute 56 with a long ball, but Aguilar skittered his shot wide. A minute later, América had a penalty claim awarded but the Video Assistant Replay (VAR) showed the call was wrong and ref Fernando Guerrero waved off the penalty.
In minute 64, a Tigres defensive trap along the sideline produced a turnover and a quick transition. A centering pass was gathered but Sánchez was caught napping and Javier Aquino raced in from his blind side and tipped the ball away. Sánchez reacted reflexively and in so doing tripped Aquino. Guerrero pointed to the spot and, this time, VAR confirmed his call.
André-Pierre Gignac slammed home the penalty kick high and left, but Guerrero whistled the play dead. Rafa Carioca had entered the box before the Frenchman took the kick and a “do-over” was required. Goalie Memo Ochoa yakked at Gignac, hoping to unnerve him, but APG ignored him, placed the ball on the spot and waited for the whistle. This time, Gignac slotted low and right as Ochoa dived the opposite way and the Tigres led 2-1. The Frenchman now has 22 playoff goals, just one behind sixth-place Cabinho.
The Tigres tightened the noose even more as coach Miguel Herrera sent in a second striker (Roger Martínez) and playmaking midfielder Nico Benedetti. Ortega came off his line brilliantly in minute 77 to gobble up a through pass.
A few minutes later, ref Guerrero stopped play for a penalty check against the Tigres but VAR revealed the América player was offside before the foul occurred. More frustration for the Aguilas. As the minutes wound down, the Tigres seemed to falter a bit. Weak clearance plays and sloppy passes kept América in the offensive third, so “Tuca” sent in a fifth defender.
The pressure and tension increased as the Aguilas swarmed around the box, desperately looking for a hole in the Tigres defense. Deep into added time, the Tigres stole a pass and started a fast break, with Luis Quiñones breaking free with a 1-on-1 chance. Suddenly, the whistle blew. Guerrero announced he was going to make another penalty check. The Tigres were furious. By rule, the ref should have waited for the counter-attack to end before stopping play. If the Tigres had scored and the video check revealed a penalty, then the goal would be disallowed and a penalty kick taken. Instead, he denied the Tigres a chance to extend the lead and went to the VAR monitor. Replays showed there was nothing even close to a penalty.
After 9 minutes of added time, Guerrero waved an end to the game. The Tigres will host América in Monterrey on Sunday night, knowing the Aguilas will have to score twice to eliminate them. Lest we forget, the Tigres conceded a league-low 14 goals in 18 matches, so “El Piojo” and América have a difficult task ahead of them.