Luis Montes showed why he could start for Mexico at the World Cup by securing the decisive goal in Club León’s 1-0 victory over Toluca in the first leg of their Liguilla semifinal tie on Thursday night.
Montes separated the sides on the night with an instinctive run and a well-placed header after 24 minutes. Both teams mustered opportunities to change the scoreline after that stage, but the defenses held firm to give León a narrow advantage ahead of the return leg in Toluca on Sunday.
León accomplished most of its key objectives with the triumph, though. The home side asserted dominion over the ball for most of the night and received good performances from its midfield quartet. Those displays sealed a necessary result on the night and stopped Toluca from snagging a potentially vital away goal.
Although Toluca traveled to the Nou Camp in search of a more tangible foothold, the Red Devils will return home relatively satisfied with their lot. They face a formidable task to keep León off the board in the second leg, but their usual defensive solidity offers ample encouragement in that endeavor.
Toluca boss José Cardozo will hope to have the injured Alfredo Talavera – forced out before the half-hour after taking a shot to the face in the early stages – back for the second leg, but the defeated CONCACAF Champions League finalists will find still themselves reasonably situated to advance to that stage once more even if he does not feature.
León started brightly in a bid to create a significant advantage in the tie and replicate the comprehensive first-leg victory Pachuca registered over Santos Laguna on Wednesday night. Rafa Márquez nearly provided the perfect start inside the first five minutes when he headed Montes’ free kick toward goal, but it flew over the bar.
Toluca shifted its plans inside the first 20 minutes when Talavera sustained a blow that would eventually force him off. The aspiring Mexico goalkeeper intervened bravely to save Mauro Boselli’s near-post drive with his face, but the blow kept him down on the field for several minutes before he temporarily resumed play.
The extended stoppage did not disrupt León’s rhythm or prevent Montes from collecting the opener minutes later. Edwin Hernández ambled into space on the left and curled an inviting cross back toward the penalty spot. Montes floated free from his marker and turned his header inside the near post to hand the holders a deserved lead.
Talavera remained rooted to the spot on the opener and eventually slumped to the ground before the half-hour. César Lozano climbed off the bench for his third appearance of the Clausura and received immediate scrutiny from the opposition. José Juan Vazquez fired wide of the far post to herald Lozano’s arrival, while Montes struck his free kick straight at the substitute goalkeeper seven minutes before halftime.
Toluca improved after the interval to further the search for a precious equalizer. Edgar Benítez’s knifing run out of midfield prompted Márquez to haul him down and set up an inviting free kick just outside the penalty area. Carlos Esquivel’s resulting free kick did not match the menace of the run, though.
Both teams started to change their setups as the second half progressed to tweak the emerging calculus. The substitutions nearly produced an equalizer for the visitors, but William Yarbrough turned aside Raul Nava’s effort in the final minutes. Yarbrough’s stop protected León’s narrow advantage and sent Toluca back to Estadio Nemesio Diez with work to do on Sunday.