León visits Tigres to kick off Liga MX semifinals

León central defender William Tesillo (right) will have his hands full against André-Pierre Gignac (left) and the Tigres. (Photo by Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)
León central defender William Tesillo (right) will have his hands full against André-Pierre Gignac (left) and the Tigres. (Photo by Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
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Liga MX semifinals preview 1
Ángel Mena missed a penalty kick that would have put visiting León up 3-0 during the Week 8 Liga MX contest against the Tigres which ended in a 2-2 draw. (Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

The Liga MX semifinals kick off in Estadio Universitario tonight as the No. 3 seeded Esmeraldas of León pay a visit to the fourth-seeded Tigres. On paper, this is the better of the two semifinals and it is a rematch of the tense, low-scoring Clausura 2019 Finals won by the Tigres on a 1-0 aggregate score line.

These two teams met back on Matchday 8 (Sept. 11) in this same venue with a late Luis Quiñones goal denying León a big road win. Then other goal-scorers in the 2-2 affair were Elías Hernández (31’), Angel Mena (33’) for “La Fiera” and Raymundo Fulgencio in minute 42. Quiñones bagged his goal in minute 90+3.

Both clubs are guided by first-year coaches – León Ariel Holan is a rookie in Liga MX, while Tigres boss Miguel Herrera is in charge of his seventh Liga MX franchise (including two separate stints at América and at Atlante) since taking over at Atlante in 2002. “El Piojo” is coaching in his 22nd Liguilla and this is his 13th semifinals appearance. He is 6-6 in the Liga MX Final Four.

The Tigres will be looking to advance to their 13th Liga MX Final (and their first since defeating León 2½ years ago) in pursuit of their 8th Liga MX trophy. The Esmeraldas hope to reach their 15th Final and are in search of their 9th league championship.

Can the Tigres hold court against road warriors?

Although both clubs feature first-year coaches, each arrived at a club with title aspirations. Herrera replaced “Tuca” Ferretti who led the Tigres to five Liga MX titles, two runners-up finishes while qualifying for the playoffs in 18 of the previous 20 seasons.

Holan took over for Ignacio Ambriz who, since taking over a mediocre Esmeraldas team midway through the Apertura 2018 season, led the club to a No. 1 seed the following season before losing to the Tigres in the Finals. That was followed by two second-place finishes before “La Fiera” earned the No. 1 seed last season before going on to win their eighth Liga MX title.

This season, the Tigres were one of only two Liga MX teams to go unbeaten at home in the Apertura 2021 (4-5-0) but they’ll be facing the league’s best road team (León went 5-2-2 away from the Camp Nou).

The Tigres outscored opponents at the Estadio Universitario to the tune of 15-5 while León managed a +1 goal differential on the road (9 goals scored, 8 goals conceded).

Both teams suffered through considerable roster uncertainty (for instance, star striker André-Pierre Gignac played in only eight games and missed the first seven matches dealing with an ankle injury suffered while on Olympic duty with France; for its part, León saw skipper Luis Montes go down with a long-term injury that kept him out of 11 games), so Holan and Herrera have been forced to use their entire rosters.

While Gignac is back in top shape (he has 4 goals and 1 assist in his past seven games) and teaming up well with Liga MX Golden Boot winner Nico López (9 goals), Montes saw his first bit of action in nearly two months when he made a 30-minute appearance against Puebla on Saturday. “El Chapo” started only one game (the season-opener) and, as the Esmeraldas’ top playmaker for nearly a decade, the team struggled without him this season.

As for tonight’s first-leg match, expect León to focus on defense while looking to counter down the wings with Angel Mena, Omar Fernández and Víctor Dávila pressuring the Tigres defense.

The Tigres also like to move the ball down the wings with fullback Javier Aquino and winger Luis Quiñones a formidable duo on the left. In midfield Guido Pizarro must pass a pre-game fitness test but he and Rafa Carioca will get help from Juan Pablo Vigón to shut down León transition attack.

The real test should be how well the Esmeraldas back line of Andrés Mosquera, Stevin Barreiro, William Tesillo and Osvaldo Rodríguez stand up to Gignac and “Diente” López. Goals could be at a premium since Nahuel Guzmán (Tigres) and Rodolfo Cota (León) are among the very best Liga MX netminders.