Monterrey maintain its firm grip on the CONCACAF Champions League throne by producing the type of first-leg performance expected from a two-time defending champion playing in yet another final.
The holders did not cower when presented with a difficult trek to Estadio Corona. They did not shrink when César Delgado reduced them to 10 men with a wild challenge after 66 minutes. They instead stood tall and took control of this two-legged tie by securing a 0-0 draw on Wednesday night.
Victor Manuel Vucetich’s side mustered the assured display required to subdue a Santos outfit in good form both in its home stadium and in Liga MX right now. The experienced Rayados also benefited from no shortage of help from their disorganized and uncertain opposition.
On a night when Santos needed to wrest control of this affair away from Monterrey, it instead deferred to its esteemed competition. Santos manager Pedro Caixinha changed from his preferred 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 setup to match Monterrey’s usual shape, dropped Hérculez Gomez to the bench to accommodate Mario Cárdenas and Edgar Lugo in the wide areas and subsequently watched his players flail around as they attempted to implement the alterations.
It did not take long to grasp the gravity of Caixinha’s error. The brisk tempo of the opening period – and the corresponding chances created and repelled at both ends – revealed the amount of time and space afforded to Monterrey when it surged through midfield. Once the visitors obtained possession , they leaned on their ability to interchange within their familiar setup to overwhelm Juan Pablo Rodriguez and Rodolfo Salinas and place the uncertain Santos rearguard under pressure.
Santos usually responds to such threats ably enough by striking on the counter, but it did not possess the necessary menace on the break to peg the visitors back with Gómez rooted to the bench. The home side lacked both the fluidity and the quality to generate opportunities against its organized opposition. In the face of two disciplined banks of four, Carlos Darwin Quintero operating as a freelancer and Peralta struggling to find space only posed the most fleeting of threats.
Monterrey should have consolidated its advantage shortly after halftime. Delgado – in the midst of a tantalizing performance in the wide areas – cut inside on the right flank and served an inviting ball toward the penalty spot. Humberto Suazo rose well to meet the cross and thumped his header downward off the near post to hand Santos an unwarranted escape.
The reprieves for the home side continued when Delgado tarnished his influential performance with a moment of madness after 66 minutes. The Argentine midfielder lunged into a challenge with Gómez – inserted into a wide role after Peralta sustained a right knee injury after an awkward barge from Leobardo López early in the second half – and went harder and higher than prudent on this evening. Referee Roberto Garcia issued five yellow cards in the first half and showed no leniency here to reduce the visitors to 10 men.
Delgado essentially invited Santos to atone for its earlier failings, but the challengers could not alter the course of this game. Vucetich made all of the right moves to close out the game and relied on his seasoned players to prevent Santos from snatching a winner. The paucity of chances for the home side – Quintero hit a header straight at Jonathan Orozco in the wake of the sending off and Gómez watched López intervene before he could pounce at the near post in second-half stoppage time – after the dismissal underscored the effectiveness of those efforts.
The final whistle reinforced Monterrey’s success on the night. Vucetich and his players would have preferred to notch an away goal to remove most of the doubt, but this showing certainly sufficed. The holders dictated the terms of the affair and prevented Santos from establishing a foothold in the tie ahead of the decisive second leg at Estadio Tecnológico next week ( live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET).
By claiming a 0-0 draw in Torreón, Monterrey moved itself in position to join Cruz Azul as the only clubs to win three consecutive editions of this tournament. Santos will likely return to its strengths and summon a vastly improved performance in a bid to sidetrack yet another coronation. Whether it can conjure the necessary incisiveness to snatch a critical away goal if Peralta cannot feature remains uncertain, though.
Then again, those improvements might not matter in the end given the magnitude of the task ahead. If Monterrey submits a professional display comparable to its first leg in front of its expectant supporters, then it will likely ensure its perch atop CONCACAF remains safe for yet another year.