CONCACAF Champions League: Semifinal 1st Leg Roundup
We understand: occasionally things like ‘sleep’ and ‘responsibilities’ get in the way of watching CCL. Not to worry, OTF’s resident insomniac, Austin Fido, is here to recap the semifinal 1st legs…
Both semifinals head into the second leg toting 1-0 scorelines. This might imply two well-poised contests, and it is true that no team is entirely without hope of progressing, but neither game did a great deal to challenge the prevailing assumptions about which teams are headed to this year’s final.
Alajuelense has the daunting task of having to beat Toluca in Toluca to make the final. Tijuana is faced with the only marginally less worrying requirement to not cough up a one-goal lead in Estadio Azul.
At the halfway point of the semifinals, the favorites in each tie – Cruz Azul and Toluca – are still the favorites. Here’s what went down in the first legs…
ALAJUELENSE 0-1 TOLUCA
2nd Leg – 4/8 @ Toluca (7pm CST)
It was all going according to plan for Alajuelense until the 72nd minute of this first leg, when Paulo da Silva got on the end of a corner and gave Toluca the lead.
It was a gut punch for the home team. A gut punch followed by a kick to the groin. Just six minutes earlier, everything was as Los Manudos had hoped.
A back-and-forth first half ended 0-0, Alajuelense securing the CCL record for minutes played without conceding a goal (575 minutes, or thereabouts, is where it finished) in the process. Neither team looked too sharp in front of goal, but La Liga has never really resembled a high-scoring team in this tournament.
The game plan that has taken them to the semifinals has been simple: don’t concede, and convert just one chance to score. Jonathan McDonald pinged a shot from distance off the post in the 40th minute. In the second half, Alajuelense came out blazing, fired in cross after cross after cross, failed to connect convincingly with any of them, but they had Los Diablos Rojos where they wanted them: pinned in their own penalty area.
The pressure paid off in the 66th minute: da Silva grazed Johan Ulloa inside the 18-yard box, the forward went down – penalty. It was a gift-wrapped opportunity to get the 1-0 win the home team was looking for, and poor Jonathan McDonald spurned it. He skied his shot, didn’t even ask the ‘keeper to make a save, and dropped to his knees in self-abasement.
Then Toluca marched up the field and got themselves a goal from the head of the man who conceded the penalty their hosts could not convert.
It’s hard to come back from that – and Alajuelense did not. The tournament’s top seed, Toluca, will take an away goal, and the lead, back to Mexico for the concluding match of this semifinal. For Los Manudos, the equation is simple: win or go home. Los Diablos Rojos haven’t lost a game in Toluca since September.
Yes, Alajuelense beat America last year in Azteca, but that was against a team needing to score and vulnerable to the counter-attack. The match in Toluca will be played under different circumstances. It will take something extraordinary for La Liga to pull off another win in Mexico.
TIJUANA 1-0 CRUZ AZUL
2nd Leg – 4/8 @ Cruz Azul (7pm CST)
The last time a team beat Cruz Azul in the first leg of a CCL knockout round, La Maquina brutally dismembered the impertinent rival on the grass of Estadio Azul.
Cruz Azul coach Luis Fernando Tena watched his side stutter and slip against Tijuana with something close to serenity. His one effort to adjust a lineup that wasn’t playing particularly well: the 72nd minute introduction of B-team forward Ismail Valadez for a sub-optimal Mariano Pavone.
Six minutes later, Dario Benedetto went down on the edge of the box under a slight, but nonetheless real, touch to the back of his leg, and Cristian Pellerano converted the penalty for Tijuana. 1-0 to the home team, 15 minutes or so left in the match – Tena did nothing.
Xolos were allowed to enjoy the confidence boost of their first ever win over La Maquina. Now they must plot a way out of Estadio Azul which does not involve conceding 5 goals in 90 minutes – a route hereby known as ‘the road to Kansas City’. Tijuana has no interest in the road to Kansas City.
But they know they will play a considerably better Cruz Azul next week: one not propped up at the back by reserve team defenders, nor lacking Marco Fabian.
Xolos won a great many admirers for their valiant run to the Copa Libertadores quarterfinal last year. They will win a few more if they can parlay this inaugural win over Cruz Azul into a CCL final debut.
CONCACAF editor Austin Fido is @canetop.