A No. 6 seed has never won the Liga MX Finals; América now has a chance to do that after powering past Morelia in the semifinals.
América needed at least two goals to advance to the Finals. Renato Ibarra and Federico Viñas took care of that before halftime. The Aguilas then held on with a smothering defense, strategic fouls and a bit of time-wasting.
The result was a 2-0 win over No. 7 Morelia and the Aguilas have a chance to become the first-ever No. 6 seed to win the Liga MX Final. In the 46 previous short-season playoffs, the No. 6 seed has advanced to the Finals only six times, the last time coming in the Clausura 2015. And ironically enough, in that instance, the sixth-seeded Gallos Blancos of Querétaro lost to the No. 8 seed, Santos Laguna. It just so happens that the Aguilas will be playing the No. 8 seed (Monterrey) in the Apertura 2019 Final.
Morelia came into the return match figuring it needed to score a goal to knock América out. After a 2-0 win in the first leg, a goal by the visiting Monarcas on Sunday night would have forced the Aguilas to score four times because of the away goal rule.
Instead, América overcame a first-leg deficit for the second consecutive series and find themselves in the Final.
“Piojo” tinkers with Aguilas line-up
Left back Jorge Sánchez was suspended after picking up a red card in Thursday’s match in Morelia and América coach Miguel Herrera opted to insert midfielder Sebastián Córdova into that slot. “El Piojo” also left Gio dos Santos out of his line-up and used Renato Ibarra and Andrés Ibarguen as wingers in a 4-4-2 formation.
Herrera got it exactly right. Córdova settled into his role on the back line but still ventured forward with some success. Ibarra and Ibarguen used their speed and anticipation to exploit the passive Morelia midfield, intercepting passes, breaking up plays and keeping the Monarcas offense from breaking out with numbers.
Pablo Guede’s team stuck with its typical 4-4-2 line-up looking to attack on the counter, or at least with quick transition. They were rarely able to sustain possession in attack (finishing with a sub-par 67% pass completion rate) primarily because their wide players were constantly chasing América players down the flanks and unable to get forward in time.
The one good opportunity created by Morelia in the first half (in minute 14) came from a lead pass behind the defense after which the Monarcas swung the ball from the right flank to the left channel. Miguel Sansores took the shot but Aguilas keeper Memo Ochoa was there for the save.
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Sebastian Sosa came up with a stellar block 10 minutes later and three minutes after that América had a goal ruled out for offside.
In minute 37, Ibarra and Ibarguen made their mark. Luis “Quick” Mendoza made a poor back pass and Ibarguen swooped in, avoided a tackle and sprinted into Morelia’s defensive third before squaring across the top of the box to Ibarra. The shifty Ecuadorian eluded one defender than fired from 18 meters. The shot deflected off a Morelia defender and into the net. One goal down, one to go.
Guido Rodríguez blasted a long diagonal shot that just missed the far post in minute 43 and only seconds later the Aguilas had their second goal. Roger Martínez (subbed in to replace the injured Ibarra) had time on the right flank, looked up and then zipped a low cross behind the defense that Federico Viñas ran onto and headed off the bounce, knocking the ball past a helpless Sosa.
Aguilas smother Monarcas
América tightened up its lines for the second half, and jumped into double teams effectively, limiting Morelia’s space to operate. The Monarcas had more possession, but were unable to create clear scoring chances. This is evident by their shooting stats – 7 shots total and only 4 shots on goal.
Morelia also suffered from América’s gamesmanship. When the Aguilas sought to clear danger zones, a frequent strategy was the flop. Bruno Valdez was masterful. On one occasion, the Paraguayan defender was dribbling out of the box when pressured by Mario Osuna and Valdez went down, getting a foul call. Replays showed he had not been touched.
But it was América’s physical defense and trapping that won the game. For long stretches of the second half, Morelia had trouble getting out of their own zone. Monarcas players often had room, but while looking for the best pass, América defenders closed in, causing a plethora or errant passes.
In minute 71, Morelia appeared to have bagged a goal off a free kick, but Video Assistant Replay correctly alerted ref Luis Enrique Santander that the goal-scorer was offside. América then had another goal annulled after a Henry Martín handball.
Just before the final whistle, Morelia manufactured one last chance. Edison Flores – the top Monarcas scorer in the playoffs – finally got a touch and he escaped down the left flank and lofted a cross into the crease. Fernando Aristeguieta got his head on the ball but banged it right at Ochoa.
The final whistle sounded shortly after that and América will be making its way to its 23rd Liga MX Final, a league record.