Pachuca relied on Enner Valencia, Dieter Villalpando and Óscar Pérez to claim a 3-2 victory at Club León in the engaging first leg of the Liga MX Liguilla final on Thursday night.
Valencia responded to the opener from Carlos Peña by pouncing from Villalpando set pieces either side of halftime to place the visitors in front. Villalpando then prompted Hiram Lozano’s third after 69 minutes to hand Pachuca a commanding lead, but Miguel Herrera turned Elias Hernández’s free kick into his own net in the final quarter of an hour to arrange a grandstand finish.
Pérez managed to protect the lead under severe duress in the final minutes. The former Mexico international goalkeeper parried Hernández’s effort around the post and punched away Rafa Márquez’s last-gasp free kick to provide Pachuca with a narrow advantage ahead of the second leg at Estadio Hidalgo on Sunday night.
The pulsating finish proved no less than this expansive affair deserved with both teams committed ample numbers into the attack in search of goals. León posed most of the problems in the first half, but Pachuca boss Enrique Meza sparked an improvement with an astute tactical adjustment after the opener to slide his team back on track.
Valencia’s prowess on set pieces and Pérez’s late heroics ensured León must register a second consecutive victory away from home to maintain their chances of retaining the title. The holders must improve defensively – and particularly in dead ball situations, a persistent issue this season – if they are to join Pumas as the only teams to win back-to-back titles in the split-season era.
It took a while for those defensive issues to emerge after the home side opened brightly and pinned Pachuca back inside its own half for most of the early exchanges. Mauro Boselli forced Pérez to rush off his line to block and Peña hit the crossbar with a delicate clip inside the first 10 minutes to establish the tone of the night.
The home side generated most of the opportunities in the early stages, though Abraham Carreño spurned a glorious chance by heading straight at William Yarbrough inside the opening quarter of an hour. León responded shortly thereafter as Boselli fired narrowly over the bar to consolidate the territorial advantage.
Pachuca set its line deeply and waited for León to figure out a way through. The tempered approach invited León further and further forward until the resistance finally broke just after the half-hour.
Montes delivered an inviting corner kick toward the near post. Peña drifted over to meet it as his marker tumbled, rose without any encumbrance and turned home the opener to hand the holders a deserved lead. Meza then replaced Carreño with Erick Gutiérrez and urged his players to push out a bit to address the indifferent start.
The measures worked wonders as Valencia restored parity three minutes before halftime from another set piece. Villalpando placed his free kick into a tempting spot behind the León line. Valencia dashed past Rafa Márquez and stretched to poke his effort off the post to draw his side level before the break.
Valencia’s intervention pointed the way forward in the second half as León’s defensive shape buckled under more strict examination. Jonny Magallón cut out Valencia’s square pass toward the far post shortly after the interval, but the home side struggled to cope with Pachuca’s mobility and pace for long stretches in the second half.
Those qualities eventually provided a path toward Valencia’s second shortly after the hour. Villalpando provided yet another enticing service from a corner kick. Valencia moved deftly and quickly to hold off his markers and tuck his header inside the far post to provide the visitors with a critical second.
Yarbrough kicked away Valencia’s bid for a third shortly thereafter, but the Ecuadorian striker subsequently trudged off through injury. His absence did not stop an increasingly rampant Pachuca from taking advantage of the space afforded to snatch a third after 69 minutes.
Villalpando once again found himself in the middle of the proceedings. He played a clever diagonal into Lozano’s run on the left. Lozano collected the pass and then slotted past Yarbrough from a tight angle to give the visitors a two-goal lead.
León’s frustrations nearly boiled over minutes later as José Maria Cárdenas raised his hands to the prone Rodolfo Pizarro, but Cardenas escaped with only a yellow card for his rash actions. It marked a rare respite in the waning stages as both teams ramped up the pace in a bid to alter the calculus.
The home side eventually pulled a goal back inside the final quarter of an hour. It once again came from a set piece as Hernández drove a threatening ball toward the penalty area. Herrera tried to clear the delivery, but the ball instead glanced off his head and past Pérez to reduce the León deficit.
León pressed forward in the waning stages and nearly procured a stunning equalizer. Pérez somehow managed to push Hernández’s effort around the far post four minutes into second-half stoppage time. The home side subsequently won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area, but Pérez managed to punch Márquez’s curling effort away to preserve the victory.