Pachuca is the only club in the Liguilla final four that didn't make the semifinals last season, but rather than showing inexperience in the first leg versus Santos Laguna, the Tuzos displayed their hunger for the objective instead, winning 2-0.
- Gamecast: Pachuca 2-0 Santos
The score was a fair reflection of Pachuca's dominance in possession and their constant work in creating attacking plays. If anything, Pachuca players may lament a bit that they weren't able to make good on more than two of the chances they put together. Santos Laguna goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez had four saves on the night, and none of them were easy.
Yet Sanchez nearly gave up the first goal of the match when he made contact, though slight, with Jurgen Damm in the box in the 11th minute of play. The young player may have gone down rather easily, but it was still surprising that the referee ignored what looked to be a penalty.
The Laguneros escaped that danger, but an unfazed Pachuca squad merely decided not to depend on the whistle, and instead relied on themselves from that point on.
Enner Valencia was lively, but the club did not depend on him alone. A number of Pachuca's forwards darted into open areas with the ball on a regular basis, forcing the Santos Laguna defenders to scramble and cover.
The Laguneros did create a few chances of their own: Oribe Peralta hit the crossbar with a header; Darwin Quintero fired off an angled shot that forced veteran goalkeeper Oscar Perez into a diving save. By and large, though, the players running with the ball wore blue and white and the sphere spent much more time in the Santos Laguna defensive half of the field.
That's why when Pachuca's opening goal finally came, it seemed almost overdue. Even then, Sanchez unwillingly assisted his opponents. On a dangerous free kick in the 44th minute, he was caught leaning the wrong way when Diego de Buen sent the ball skipping through the wall of Santos Laguna players.
Savvy Pachuca coach Enrique Meza kept his players focused in the second half, preventing a comeback from Santos Laguna. Pachuca's attackers kept pushing on the gas pedal.
A corner yielded the second goal: Valencia leaped for the header, but his attempt deflected off another player and bounced the ball back. Hugo Rodriguez reacted first, poking the loose ball into the goal.
Strangely enough, despite all their experience in the Liga MX Liguilla, Santos Laguna's players seemed a bit taken aback by the ferocity of Pachuca's efforts. Coach Pedro Caixinha, who was animated in his frustration on the sideline, seemed more upset about the match than his players actually on the field. It could be that the Laguneros are well aware from the opening round of play that no lead is safe.
Santos Laguna may yet rally and put together a game plan that nullifies the exuberance and hustle of Pachuca's young players. With more shots on goal, Santos Laguna could have done a better job of testing how much spring is left in the legs of Perez. After all, the Laguneros already have a comeback to remember in this Liguilla: They scored three goals against Club America in the return leg to advance at the expense of Las Aguilas.
Things may change drastically in the second leg. Then again, the experience of Cruz Azul in that phase should remind teams not to count on home-field advantage alone to advance a club. Santos Laguna will have to perform and execute a winning strategy.
However, another disadvantage that needs to be overcome is that the Laguneros failed to claim an away goal versus Pachuca. This could prove to be a decisive element, especially if Pachuca manages to score in Estadio Corona.
In the playoffs, what matters most is how much players want to succeed in the moment. "Carpe diem" is always a mantra to live by, but especially so in knockout games. Otherwise, elimination awaits those who hesitate and lose as a result of letting chances go by.