Pachuca, Tigres battle for CONCACAF crown: Keys to avoiding nightmare loss
MEXICO CITY -- Heading into the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, Pachuca has the edge. Los Tuzos have conceded just once this year at Estadio Hidalgo and they have yet to lose an official game at home since Feb. 2, 2016, when they fell to Atletico San Luis in cup play. Pachuca's record at home is as impressive as it gets in Mexican football, but if there's one team that can put an end to it, it's Tigres.
Liga MX's best two defenses will go head-to-head in a clash that could go all the way to penalties, as was the case in the 2016 Apertura between Tigres and Club America. Here are five keys to the game:
1. Pizarro's presence fundamental for Tigres
On Sunday, Tigres' official Twitter account shared video and pictures of Guido Pizarro training normally, wearing a special face mask to protect his nose after fracturing it in the first leg of the final against Pachuca.
By Monday morning, Pizarro was already training with the rest of his teammates. After Tigres' 1-0 defeat to Monterrey in league play, Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti was asked about the possibility of Pizarro playing on Wednesday. The boss' response made it look like the player was still a doubt, but he also said: "We consider ourselves a team that's not dependent on one player."
Even though Ferretti doesn't want to recognize it, the 27-year-old midfielder is what gives his side order. Pizarro usually starts Tigres' attack and his absence was felt in the Clasico Regio defeat. With Pizarro on the field, Tigres not only have a leader, but a player capable of single-handedly owning the whole midfield.
2. Can "Chucky" Lozano take his big moment to shine?
Every time Hirving "Chucky" Lozano walks out of Estadio Hidalgo's tunnel, he's loudly welcomed by Los Tuzos' faithful. It's safe to say that "Chucky" already has a special place in Pachuca fans' hearts, but he still has unfinished work to do and it's becoming more and more noticeable that he might head overseas in the summer.
In the 2016 Clausura final against Monterrey, Lozano couldn't get on the scoresheet, and even though he's already scored eight goals in the CONCACAF Champions League, his name will have a special spot in the club's rich history if he's able to score on Wednesday in a match that could prove to be his last final with Los Tuzos before embarking on his European adventure.
3. Can Tigres pull off the "Necaxa method" to disrupt Pachuca's attack?
In their past three meetings against Necaxa, Pachuca has suffered two defeats and one draw. Los Rayos also surprisingly eliminated Pachuca in the 2016 Apertura quarterfinals.
"For some reason, those Necaxa games have always been tough for us," U.S. international and Los Tuzos' defender Omar Gonzalez said to ESPN FC after Pachuca's scoreless draw against Chivas in Week 14 of the 2017 Clausura. "Teams that just sit back have complicated things for us," he added.
Necaxa's method of sitting back and breaking on the counter has been repeatedly used by visiting sides that come to Estadio Hidalgo. The examples go from Miguel "Piojo" Herrera's Xolos to Hernan Cristante's Toluca and Jose Cardozo's Puebla. This method explains why Pachuca has four 0-0 results at home so far this season, and although Tigres are a team that love the possession game, they have the players and coach to play a physical, vertical match that could complicate things for Pachuca.
4. Guzman gives Tigres a significant advantage if game goes to penalties
Nahuel Guzman probably made the save of the series after preventing Jonathan Urretaviscaya from adding to Pachuca's lead at El Volcan, and even though Pachuca keeper Alfonso Blanco made a huge penalty stop to keep the game at 1-1, Guzman is a footballer who has proven in two consecutive league finals that he has the skills to win a shootout by himself.
When finals come up, Guzman tends to shine and whether or not this final goes to penalties, his role in helping Tigres win their first CCL trophy will be crucial.
5. Defeat will cap nightmarish first half of 2017 for the losing side
Pachuca has done everything in its power to set all of its energy and hopes on winning the CCL title. For the past few weeks, coach Diego Alonso has rotated players in his XI to have his main starters fresh for this battle against Tigres. Losing here would be a huge blow, because all of Los Tuzos' sacrifices have them on the brink of missing the 2017 Clausura playoffs.
Meanwhile, Tigres have invested a lot over the past few years -- incomparably in relation to Pachuca -- and falling short in a third international final would create frustration for the club. Tigres are experiencing some of the most inconsistent months of the "Tuca" era. A Liguilla absence and another CONCACAF Champions League defeat is unthinkable for the club.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.