Pachuca manager Enrique Meza has seen far too much during his lengthy career to exhibit too much excitement after his side’s 3-2 victory at Club León on Thursday in the first leg of the Liga MX Liguilla final.
The triumph at Nou Camp offers Pachuca nothing more than a modest foothold against the holders. The endeavor and the space conceded in the first leg suggest León will possess plenty of opportunities to overturn the tie in the second leg at Estadio Hidalgo tonight and seal a second title in succession.
“It’s a good win, particularly away from home, and especially in a stadium as difficult as this one against a such a competitive team like León,” Meza told reporters after the first leg. “I think it is valuable, but the final remains undefined because there is little advantage. We have to improve on what we did today.”
Both teams require a more complete and tempered performance after the enterprising nature of the first match on Thursday night. The entire affair lacked most of the hallmarks of a typical final with the emphasis falling upon committing numbers forward and using the vast amount of space afforded to chase after the result affirmatively.
León enjoyed the better of the early exchanges after Pachuca sat too deeply and squandered too much of the possession. The home side eventually took the lead through Carlos Peña and then watched Meza alter the proceedings substantially by inserting Erick Gutierrez after 35 minutes.
Meza grasped the need to push his side out a bit more and noted Gutierrez’s arrival exerted the necessary impact on possession. By claiming more of the ball, Pachuca finally found enough of a footing to cobble together its deft and quick work on the break and place itself in a position to exploit León’s lingering set piece vulnerabilities.
The rewards arrived in the middle swath of the affair. Enner Valencia struck twice either side of halftime before departing through injury. Hiram Lozano supplemented the haul with a critical third on 69 minutes before Miguel Herrera turned into his own net inside the final quarter of an hour to throw the home side a substantial lifeline.
“The series is open, missing 90 minutes,” León manager Gustavo Matosas said in his post-match press conference as he processed the defeat. “Pachuca converted the chances they had. We needed to be better at stopping the ball.”
León must focus primarily on establishing its dominion once again in possession, guarding against the break and shoring up its set piece defending. Dieter Villalpando’s inch-perfect service played a part in all three goals, but Matosas’ side once again struggled to cope with basic marking and tracking duties on set pieces. Those sorts of lapses simply cannot occur against a mobile Pachuca side capable of connecting quickly through midfield and punishing any allowances provided.
The success of those Pachuca efforts hinges on the continued inclusion of top scorer Valencia. The Ecuadorian striker exited just after the hour with a slight knock, but Meza insisted he would feature in the second leg. His presence – both through his endeavor from the run of play and his menace from set pieces (both of his goals on Thursday came from set piece situations) – makes him a critical component in Pachuca’s efforts.
Even if Valencia once again takes his place in the starting XI, Meza and his players will take nothing for granted as they pursue the club’s first title since the 2007 Clausura. The visitors made the journey with history in sight as they seek to join Pumas UNAM as the only teams to retain the title during the split-season era. Their exploits over the past year ensure the home side cannot afford any complacency despite the promising first leg result.
“León is a fearsome and very dangerous opponent,” Meza said. “Today was a small victory. The key will be to keep our ideas very well and play better than we did today.”
This young and precocious side must lean on Meza’s experience and wisdom to fulfill its objectives. Meza has won this title on four previous occasions, including with Pachuca seven years ago. It is why he displayed the caution he did after the away win in a series where away goals do not count. He understands the job isn’t done yet, not by a long shot. There is ample work ahead to build upon the promise of that first leg, dismiss the champions and end this surprising season with the Tuzos atop the podium with the trophy in hand tonight.