Zorros take big step toward first Liga MX Final in 22 years

Julio Furch hugs teammate Julián Quiñones after scoring to give Atlas a 1-0 lead heading into the half. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Julio Furch hugs teammate Julián Quiñones after scoring to give Atlas a 1-0 lead heading into the half. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
Atlas beats Pumas
Juan Ignacio Dinenno (in white) had a Zorros defender in his shirt most of the night as Atlas shut down the Pumas’ leading scorer. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

In a script familiar to Atlas fans, Julio Furch scored just before halftime and Camilo Vargas came up big in the clutch to lead the Zorros to a 1-0 road win in their Liga MX semifinal series against the Pumas.

The teams travel to Guadalajara for Sunday’s return leg at Estadio Jalisco with the 11th-seeded Pumas needing to win by two to continue their improbable playoff run.

Atlas’ league-leading defense (the Zorros conceded a Liga MX-low 10 goals this season) bottled up the UNAM offense, rarely allowing the Pumas a clear look at goal while shutting off their preferred avenues of attack.

Right back Alan Mozo – the hero of UNAM’s 3-1 win against top-seeded América (he had 3 assists) – was silenced by Atlas left back Luis Reyes and the Zorros’ central defense trio gave Pumas striker Juan Ignacio Dinenno absolutely no breathing room.

Pumas lack spark

The first half featured tight marking by both teams with UNAM’s three-quarters pressing limiting Atlas moves forward. The Pumas swiped momentum from the visiting Zorros around the 20-minute mark and dominated possession but failed to threaten Vargas who was well-shielded by Anderson Santamaría, Hugo Nervo and Jesús Angulo.

In minute 43, the UNAM midfield took a nap. Erik Lira backed off of Furch, allowing him to chest down a long pass while Favio Álvarez watched. Jeremy Márquez controlled the pass and swept it forward to Julián Quiñones who neatly squared it to Furch who was completely unmarked above the half-moon. The Argentine had time and space to thump a right-footer that whistled into the net off the right post.

Lira had wheeled away from Furch in a vain attempt to chase the ball, while Álvarez was little more than an onlooker and Leo López was nowhere to be found. There were six Pumas around the ball yet none got close to any of the three passes or the shot.

That play summed up the Pumas’ effort on the night. “Los Universitarios” displayed little of the energy that epitomized UNAM’s miraculous stretch run or its inspirational performance against América on Saturday.

The Pumas thought they’d gotten a lifeline in minute 45 when Sebastián Saucedo went down in a heap in the Atlas box after a challenge by Márquez stymied a UNAM counterattack. Ref Jorge Isaac Rojas pointed to the spot, but after a 3-minute delay a VAR review clearly showed that Márquez had gotten all ball and Saucedo had flopped.

The second half saw No. 2-seeded Atlas tighten the screws with skipper Aldo Rocha and Márquez shutting down passing lanes while Reyes and right back Diego Barbosa disrupted UNAM’s moves down the flanks. The Pumas managed to take 9 shots in the second half, but only one was on target and that came deep into added time.

In minute 90+3, Higor Meritao gathered in a headed pass behind his marker and was in alone on Vargas. As the Colombian keeper raced off his line, the Brazilian deftly flicked a shot that Vargas knew nothing about until it hit him in his left arm.

The Pumas showed they are capable of winning away from home by taking down América last week (the Aguilas were a league-leading 7-2-0 as hosts) and winning at Toluca in the wildcard round, but they were a mediocre 1-3-4 on the road during the regular season.

Coach Andrés Lillini must help his players rediscover the spark that inspired the team’s late-season charge or see their season end short of the Final. Atlas – only 4-2-3 at Estadio Jalisco – knows it must produce another solid 90-minute effort to reach the championship series.

Next. Liga MX Hot Stove League heats up. dark

The No. 4 seeded Tigres lead No. 3 León 2-1 in the other Liga MX semifinal with the second-leg match set for Saturday night in León.