America and Ignacio Ambriz see out thrilling CCL win vs. Santos Laguna
MEXICO CITY -- An undermanned Club America defeated Santos Laguna by final score of 1-0 in extra time. With the win, America will advance to play against Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League final and try to become the team with most CONCACAF club titles in the confederation.
Here are three takes from Estadio Azteca:
1. Santos' defensive plan (almost) worked
Boos rained down onto the pitch as the players headed to the locker rooms at halftime. America and Santos put in a first half performance that left little for fans to cheer about. It was an odd first half, where Santos, the side that hardly had any possession of the ball, almost scored the first goal off a Martin Bravo shot that ricocheted off the crossbar. America's Moises Munoz could only stare as the ball flew by him, but not into his goal.
Led by Darwin Quintero's speed and Oribe Peralta's audacity in front of goal, America were almost in front after the first 10 minutes but were denied by Agustin Marchesin's saves and key slide tackles by Santos' defenders, one of them by captain Carlos Izquierdoz, who slid centimeters from the goalline to prevent Los Azulcremas from opening the score.
Santos boss Luis Zubeldia is one of the few coaches in Mexico, if not the only one, who likes supervising the team's warmup. His involvement is not direct, though, as he stands nearby the physical trainer and chats with him as the players stretch or have a keep-up game.
Santos' starters took themselves lightly in the warmups as if they knew that during the match, they would be involved in more defensive duties than attacking ones. The lineup had Martin Bravo as only striker, while midfielders Nestor Calderon, Luis "Quick" Mendoza and Bryan Rabello were more prone to shoot from outside the box than to actually create plays around the area that could potentially leave Bravo with a scoring chance.
The match was in a stalemate, exactly where Zubeldia had wanted it to be. As the clock kept ticking, America's players, who were creating dangerous scoring chances but were unable to convert any of them, began to fall into desperation.
Zubeldia's first substitution in the game wasn't made so the team could attack more, rather the coach wanted to maintain the midfield solidarity by sending in central midfielder Diego de Buen. The fact that Santos heavily relied on the counter-attack was a risky decision, but when the 90 minutes came to an end, and Estadio Azteca's scoreboard read 0-0, the team was closer to its goal of reaching the final despite conceding numerous quality chances to the hosts.
At the start of extra time, Santos was the side expected to generate most of the attacking plays, in large part due to Quintero's sending off for a reckless challenge close to the end of regular time. But Santos' attacking sparks hardly came, almost as if the team had prepared very little beforehand to be on the front foot.
After Michael Arroyo's free kick goal -- which slipped harshly through Agustin Marchesin's hands -- Santos couldn't catch a break in the attack. Tuesday night will be remembered as one where Santos showed a lot of defensive reliability, but also demonstrated that it lacks the type of star-studded attacking midfielders and strikers who could position the club among Liga MX's elite.
2. America suffers, but earns big win
After America's poor performance at the Club World Cup last December, Ignacio "Nacho" Ambriz's next major test was the second-leg of the semifinal series against Santos. Even though America came into the match with a 10-game unbeaten streak in CCL play, which included nine wins, Las Aguilas didn't arrive to Estadio Azteca as an unbeatable side, rather a side that could at any moment break apart.
When Quintero saw the red, the crowd at Azteca applauded him as he walked off the pitch. Most of the people in the stadium likely saw the red as an unfair referee decision, as opposed to another mental error on Quintero's part. Times have changed for the Colombian forward, who not long ago heard boos from the crowd at Azteca, now he even gets a loud clamor after seeing the red.
America's main problem throughout the game was its seeming desire to overcomplicate a definitive scoring play in order to make it more flashy. Peralta, who was ultimately substituted for Arroyo, fell in that trap more than once and a part of the crowd made it known to him as he stepped off the field.
Last week Arroyo scored a free kick goal while playing with Ecuador's national team. However, that goal was scored in a game that Ecuador lost 3-1 to Colombia. This goal proved more meaningful as Arroyo was presented with a free kick opportunity that could produce the match-winner and he didn't fail in the moment. He released a bullet from his right foot that Marchesin was unable to stop.
From afar, it looked like Marchesin had come too easy on the ball, without enough strength in his hands to support such well-hit shot. When the ball went past him, he placed his arms on his head in disbelief, knowing he'd blown it after an impressive game up until then.
America has not lost a match since March 2. During this current run, Los Azulcremas have scored 14 goals and conceded four. Six wins in America's last seven games have significantly revitalized Ambriz's tenure as America's head coach, and the joy is becoming palpable at El Coloso de Santa Ursula.
3. Agustin Marchesin, hero and villain
At certain points of the game, it appeared as if America was just playing against Marchesin, while the rest of his Santos teammates were spectators, waiting to get a hold of a rebound to boot it out of heated territory.
The Argentine goalkeeper, who has been called-up by Gerardo "Tata" Martino's Albiceleste, enjoyed every important save he got at Estadio Azteca. The more shots that came his way, the better he felt; confidence is difficult to illustrate, but every time Marchesin dove for a ball or stretched his arms out to prevent America from scoring its first goal of the evening, he radiated confidence.
Early on in the second half, America was once again on the prowl, taking every possible shot on goal that came its way. One of them best showcased Marchesin's ability to wait until the last millisecond possible to make a sudden decision, and for the most part, he got all of them right. It's rare to see the 27-year-old goalkeeper make a hasty decision in goal. He has a vision and natural instinct that allows him to analyze where the shooter will place the shot and dive exactly where the ball is heading.
His error that led to the only goal of the game shouldn't be magnified because throughout the 180 minutes of regular time in this series against America, Marchesin made saves few goalkeepers in Liga MX can.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.