Leon, the defending Liga MX champions, written off by many as a long shot to even make the liguilla to defend their crown, have now made it clear that they will give up the trophy only when it's pried out of their cold, eliminated fingers. By the way that they are playing, the players don't appear ready to bid farewell any time soon as Leon defeated Toluca 1-0 in the first leg of their playoff semifinal on Thursday night.
- Gamecast: Leon 1-0 Toluca
Sure, it's a small margin, but Leon managed to prevent a crucial away goal, making virtually any score they put in against Toluca count for extra.
It wasn't as if Toluca's defense let the squad down, either. Toluca goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera actually had more saves (five) in the match than Leon goalkeeper William Yarbrough (four).
But one opportunity in the 24th minute was all Luis Montes needed. Edwin Hernandez crossed the ball into the box and Montes banged a header into the bottom left corner of the net.
What's interesting is that for such a high-scoring squad, Toluca can sometimes get mired in the midfield, probing a stout defense helplessly for some weakness to exploit and score. It doesn't happen often, but when the Diablos Rojos get stuck, they get really confounded about the very thing they usually excel in -- scoring goals.
Sure, there were chances at times for Toluca players like Edgar Benitez, but more often, it was Leon taking the initiative though players like Carlos Pena and Mauro Boselli.
Something similar happened in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match for Toluca when the squad unexpectedly struggled with the stubborn San Jose Earthquakes. Despite featuring some impressive attacking talent such as El Tri darlings Isaac Brizuela and Miguel Angel Ponce, Toluca couldn't generate many chances and barely squeaked into the next round of play.
Yet after an impressive Liga MX regular season, many thought Toluca's tendency to stagnate had been worked out. Apparently not. Again, the contrast between the unimaginative squad and the lively Leon players was stark.
Another thing that had been surprising throughout the liguilla is how focused Leon has been despite the distraction of coach Gustavo Matosas' uncertain future with the club. Perhaps the players are hoping that a winning run will convince their Argentine coach to stay.
Meanwhile, it's up to Jose Cardozo, Toluca's Paraguayan coach, to see if he can salvage a season that looked so promising for so long. While other teams would be happy to merely make the liguilla, that dream isn't enough for Toluca.
Indeed, as the highest seed left in the liguilla, Toluca is expected to win. Anything less than the Liga MX crown will be a disappointment for the players who have come too far to be turned away now.
The real problem, though, is that Leon know what it takes to win a liguilla. The players, like co-captain Rafael Marquez, have climbed that mountain already and claimed silverware. The switch to turn on exactly what's needed at the right time is in many of the Leon players, ready for go time.
The crown may lie uneasy on the head of Leon, but it won't be easy for any other squad to come and take it.