CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

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Santos must consider tactical change

CONCACAF Champions League: Highlights of Santos Laguna's 0-0 draw vs. Monterrey.
CONCACAF Champions League: Highlights of Santos Laguna's 0-0 draw vs. Monterrey.
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Kyle McCarthy

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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Just about every aspect of the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final in Torreón favored two-time defending champions Monterrey.

The holders exerted their will on the game from the buildup through the final whistle last week. They dictated the terms of the game and forced Santos Laguna from its comfort zone and its usual approach. They secured a 0-0 draw at Estadio Corona despite losing César Delgado to a senseless second half red card.

The seasoned and utterly professional display left Los Rayados in an enviable position ahead of the second leg (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET). A home victory will see the home side lift the title for a third consecutive tournament.

In order to prevent the looming coronation at Estadio Tecnológico, Santos must concoct a way to alter the calculus from the first leg. The solution likely starts with a return to its attacking roots.

Santos manager Pedro Caixinha diminished his side's best qualities when he squeezed his players into a 4-4-2 setup in a bid to match Monterrey's projected formation ahead of the first leg. The corresponding changes – including Hérculez Gómez's exclusion from the starting XI and the defensive uncertainty that followed – limited the fluidity through the middle third and restricted the movement in the attacking third. The home side never settled into the match and never snatched the goal or two required to provide a cushion for the second leg trek to Monterrey.

Caixinha's tactics failed on the whole in the first leg, but his players did salvage something from the affair by keeping that precious clean sheet. A draw with goals for both sides after regular time will see Santos topple their frequent foes and travel to Morocco for the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup in December. And goals remain in the purview for the Clausura contenders.

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It will take a braver mindset to procure them, though. The exact alignment will depend on Oribe Peralta's fitness. The prolific striker missed out on the 1-0 defeat to Cruz Azul on Saturday after sustaining a knee injury in the first leg, but he trained with his teammates on Monday ahead of this tie. If the Mexico regular recuperates in time to start, then Caixinha can return to his usual 4-3-3 setup without a hitch. If he isn't available, then Gómez and Carlos Darwin Quintero would likely partner up top if Caixinha persists with the 4-4-2 setup. Their combination play can create problems for any defense, but Peralta's absence would impact the buildup work and place additional pressure on projected wingers Néstor Calderón and Edgar Lugo to offer creativity on the flanks.

Those wide players may also have to tuck in a bit more defensively in order to rectify the concerns in the center of the park. Monterrey coach Victor Manuel Vucetich restricted veteran midfielder Walter Ayoví to a 20-minute appearance in the critical 1-0 victory over Tigres on Saturday to ensure his fitness for this tie. Ayoví combined with Jesús Zavala to essentially play Juan Pablo Rodríguez and Rodolfo Salinas off the park in the first leg. Caixinha may tweak the balance in that department ahead of the second leg – perhaps he can find a place for veteran Marc Crosas after excluding him last week – in a bid to compensate for the deficiencies there.

Vucetich returned to a 5-3-2 setup for the triumph over Tigres at the weekend, but he should persist with his successful approach from the first leg in this affair. The potential returns of Neri Cardozo (quadriceps) and Severo Meza (toe) increase the options available to Vucetich if he opts to freshen his squad from the weekend, but he does not need to change much from the first leg in terms of performance or tactics (though Cardozo would compensate nicely for the banned Delgado) in order to produce the desired result.

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Monterrey will once again rely on the collective strength within its ranks and the plundering of Aldo de Nigris (rested for the first 69 minutes of the victory at Tigres in preparation for this match) and Humberto Suazo to carry the day. The successes in recent years have prepared these players to join Cruz Azul (1969-71) as the only clubs to win this tournament on three consecutive occasions. And the first leg display and the team selection at the weekend reinforces the club's desire to celebrate in front of its fans after winning its previous two Champions League titles away from home.

The outcome isn't certain, though. Santos enters this affair with the knowledge that a road goal or two could tip the tie in its favor. A poor first leg performance does not preclude a second leg revival, but the visitors must summon a vastly improved display in order to atone for its defeat in the final last year and wrest the title away from the champions. Anything less will likely allow Monterrey to enter the record books and maintain its hard-earned perch atop the region for yet another year.

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