Catharsis only lasts so long at Club América, even when it arrives after a pulsating victory against Cruz Azul. The planning for the next challenge commenced mere days after América lifted its first Mexican title since the 2005 Clausura. The focus quickly shifts to instant achievements to future conquests at a club of this stature.
Departing manager Miguel Herrera willingly accepted the brief handed to him in the wake of the vindicating Clausura triumph in May. He knew the board expected him to deliver the first bicampeonato since Pumas UNAM won consecutive championships under Hugo Sánchez nine years ago. He understood he could not allow any obstacle to impair or hinder the quest for a record 12th title.
“You have to go out and win,” Herrera told reporters during a press conference on Saturday. “You have to meet the requirements of this club and win titles.
Las Aguilas must produce one last stirring performance to fulfill their objective and send Herrera off to the Mexican national team as a champion. León‘s assured display in the first leg — and América’s inability to take advantage of a bright spell at the start of the second half — left the holders with a two-goal deficit to overturn on Sunday night. Carlos Peña and Mauro Boselli scored either side of halftime to place América in an all-too-familiar predicament heading into this second leg.
América makes a bit of a habit of falling behind once it reaches this stage. In each of their past four appearances in the Liguilla final, Las Águilas entered the second leg behind on aggregate. The responses in those situations — three championships, including the penalty-kick thriller against La Máquina earlier this year — supply encouragement for another response at Estadio Azteca.
The recent home form provides more reason for hope. In a forceful sign of its dominance for much of this Apertura campaign (before the apparent inevitability of a first-place finish and the national team distractions for Herrera and much of his squad inevitably affected results), América brushed aside its opposition without conceding more than one goal or suffering a home defeat. The 13-match home unbeaten run in league play since May encompasses six victories by a two-goal margin, including a 2-0 triumph over Toluca in the semifinals to overcome a first-leg defeat and reach this stage.
América wingback Miguel Layún rather sagely noted his side’s confidence in adverse situations after their practice in these plights, but the holders have not tried to dispatch a side quite like León in these circumstances, either. León presents a credible threat to interrupt América’s stated goals with its ability to crack América’s usual strength through the middle and seize the initiative in the match. The first half at the Nou Camp on Thursday night offered a glimpse of how Gustavo Matosas’ swashbuckling side increases the tempo and pushes forward in search of goals time and time again when it operates with confidence and endeavor.
The balance changes significantly when León cannot venture into the attacking half as ardently. This group isn’t suited to soaking up pressure for extended periods of time. América highlighted León’s inherent frailty with a more incisive performance at the start of the second half, but it failed to take advantage of the opportunities created by a slower tempo and a sustained spell in possession.
Most teams brace for the onslaught upon arrival at the Azteca. León cannot afford to adopt a similar tactic, though. Peña — the star man for León this season and an emerging presence in Herrera’s Mexico squad — said he and his teammates understand the predicament ahead as they attempt to manage their first-leg cushion.
“We have to remain the same León,” Peña told record.com.mx. “The truth is that our coach Matosas has always wanted us to attack when we play. We will go to the Azteca to make a great game.”
The prospects of a damp squib are remote given the circumstances. América plans to push early and often — Herrera noted the match would turn into “a game of life or death” without a first half goal — to assert its dominion over the match. León strives to hit back when possible to bolster its standing in the tie ahead of América’s expected second half improvement.
Even with those operating principles clearly established, this spectacle isn’t likely to replicate the ejection-marred, tension-fueled drama of the second leg between América and Cruz Azul seven months ago. It certainly won’t involve a last-minute goal from Moisés Muñoz to force the final into extra time. It hopefully won’t warrant a decisive round of penalty kicks to separate the sides.
América does not require such theatrics at this stage, though. Any victory will suffice with the bicampeonato and the precious 12th title at stake. América toiled earnestly in this Liguilla for a chance to procure this opportunity on home soil. It survived attempts by Tigres and Toluca to sidetrack the march to history. Only León stands between Las Aguilas and their place in history. It is now down to them to figure out a way to complete the plans forged months ago and reach that temporary state of bliss once more.