Club León’s march toward history will last just two more matches. There is a binary outcome to this Liga MX Liguilla final extending beyond success or failure, beyond champion or runner-up. The holders possess a chance to join Pumas UNAM as the only team in the split-season era to retain the Mexican title.
León scuppered Club América’s opportunity to accomplish the feat with its victory in the Apertura final in December. Las Águilas highlighted the difficulty of even reaching this juncture of a title defense: they were first team to even make the final after winning the previous tournament since Pumas won its consecutive titles back in 2004.
Several teams spurned the chance to end León’s charge on the final weekend of the Clausura campaign. The inadvisable reprieve rescued a capable side more focused on its Copa Libertadores commitments during the regular season and sparked a revival in time for the Liguilla. The ensuing victories over top-seeded Cruz Azul and second-seeded Toluca reinforced the folly of providing Gustavo Matosas and his players with an opening to continue their title defense.
One last hurdle stands between León and its place alongside Pumas: a date with Pachuca to conclude the Liguilla. The holders will host Enrique Meza’s side in the first leg at the Nou Camp on Thursday night before their potential meeting with destiny at Estadio Hidalgo in the return leg on Sunday night.
León enters this final as considerable favorites to cinch a second straight title. It is a perch earned by their performances and reinforced by the inevitable whispers about the shared ownership between the two clubs. Matosas stridently denied any nefarious intentions – Groupo Pachuca investor and powerful magnate Carlos Slim cheered on León at the Nou Camp during the semifinal win over Toluca to inflame the paranoia – and noted the completely separate operations for both clubs during his press conference this week.
Conspiracy theories always receive a thorough airing given the complexities and vagaries of this competition and its proprietors, but León boasts more than enough quality to succeed on its merits. Mexico boss Miguel Herrera named four León players – Rafa Márquez, Luis Montes, Carlos Peña and José Juan Vázquez – in his 23-man squad for the World Cup. The quartet forms the base of a cohesive side with the blend of experience and talent necessary to thrive at this stage of the competition.
“They are very strong across all of the lines, from the goalkeeper through the forwards,” Pachuca defender Miguel Herrera said. “They have a lot of experience. Although we have a young team, we believe in ourselves and we are very strong.”
The confidence stems from a surprising romp through Liguilla for a blossoming side (five starters are under the age of 23) with little experience at this advanced stage of the competition. Pachuca relied on its endeavor and its searing pace to expose Pumas in the quarterfinal and vanquish Santos Laguna in the semis. The productivity of those efforts – including 11 goals over the four matches played – underscores the fluidity and the potency of a side capable of breaking quickly and placing the opposition under pressure with its mobility in the final third.
Clausura top scorer Enner Valencia continues to provide the goal threat required to complete those swashbuckling moves with the necessary end product. Valencia – a necessary inclusion in Ecuador’s 30-man provisional squad for the World Cup earlier this week – presents the sort of menace capable of turning the tie on his own. His speed and the willingness of other players to join him from midfield poses a significant danger to a rejuvenated León rearguard lacking the step or two required to cope with such concerns.
Defensive frailty looms as the possible determining factor in this potentially expansive tie. Both teams prefer to play at a brisk tempo with plenty of emphasis on pushing numbers forward and relying on the strength of their attacking prowess to carry them through. If one defense can somehow blunt and repel those forays for any length of time, then it could prove the decisive twist over the two legs.
León will hope to avoid any unwanted detours over the next few days. Matosas and his players witnessed the potential fallout of a setback at this stage after halting América’s push to replicate Pumas’ feat mere months ago. They will seek to take the first step toward eventual success with a positive home result to set the stage for the potential coronation on Sunday. A place in the record books awaits, but the champions must proceed carefully and earnestly in order to claim it.