With Final in sight, Zorros Nation waits with bated breath

Julio Furch (center) was a handful for the Pumas defense on Thursday, scoring the lone goal of the match in minute 43. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Julio Furch (center) was a handful for the Pumas defense on Thursday, scoring the lone goal of the match in minute 43. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Liga MX semifinal AtlasPumas
Washington Corozo (left) and the Pumas will have to contend with the suffocating Atlas defense for 90 minutes in the second leg of their Liga MX semifinal series. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Atlas is 90 minutes away from its first Liga MX Final in 22 years. The Zorros don’t even have to win today, a draw as well as a one-goal loss to UNAM would suffice to reach just their second-ever final.

“Los Rojinegros” defeated the 11th-seeded Pumas 1-0 in the first leg in Mexico City and as the higher seed – Atlas is the No. 2 seed – they’d have to lose by two goals or more to come up short.

Boasting the best defense in Liga MX, the Zorros should feel confident facing a Pumas team that has struggled on offense (17 goals in 17 regular season games). That would be dangerous as UNAM exploded for three second-half goals in the season finale to qualify for the playoffs then found the net three times on the road vs América, eliminating the top-seeded Aguilas team that had only given up two goals at Fortress Azteca all season.

In addition, Atlas has had only modest success at home this season, going 4-3-3 (including playoffs) at Estadio Jalisco with a +3 goal differential (9 goals scored, 6 goals allowed).

What to expect tonight

The Zorros have become very comfortable in the 5-2-3 formation installed by coach Diego Cocca, and the summer addition of Julián Quiñones to an attack now led by the fully fit Julio Furch have made Atlas quite formidable.

The central defense trio of Jesús Angulo, Hugo Nervo and Anderson Santamaría rarely makes a mistake and opponents have to get past the twin pitbulls (Aldo Rocha and Jeremy Márquez) first before even getting a look at goal. And standing between the pipes is one of the best goalies in Liga MX – Colombia international Camilo Vargas.

In Thursday’s first leg, Rocha and Márquez dominated midfield, virtually erasing Erik Lira, Leo López and Favio Álvarez from the pitch. Those three at been stoking the Pumas’ engine room as the club roared down the stretch and then wreaked havoc in UNAM’s first three playoff games.

Lira and López will have to press aggressively and disrupt Atlas possessions while Álvarez must be a better link to the front line.

Right back Alan Mozo and winger Sebastián Saucedo were kept in check after spending the better part of the past month bombarding up and down the flanks. Striker Juan Ignacio Dinenno needs to see crosses coming his way (easier said than done against a disciplined Atlas defense).

Saucedo, Álvarez and Washington Corozo must create plays for teammates and avoid too much soloing (Saucedo was particularly guilty of looking for his own shot first, squandering several Pumas opportunities in the first leg). Patience will be key, and coach Andrés Lillini must likely be prepared to make tactical adjustments though his bench has not offered much production this season.

As for the Zorros, Atlas must be quick to the counter and avoid sitting back too much. “Rojinegros” fans will hope winger Jairo Torres has a better match after an error-prone performance at the CU on Thursday. His speed and technical skills could make for some dangerous fast breaks, especially as the Pumas will be pressing forward.

Chasing Liga MX history

While Atlas is on a quest to end a 70-year title drought (the Zorros’ one and only Liga MX title came when the Guadalajara-based club finished atop the league table in 1950-51), the Pumas are trying to become the first-ever No. 11 seed to qualify for the final.

Liga MX officials voted to expand the playoffs to 12 teams only three seasons ago and UNAM is only the third double-digit seed to advance out of the wildcard round. No. 12 Puebla shocked No. 5 Monterrey in a Guardianes 2020 wildcard match, but the Camoteros fell to eventual champs León in the quarterfinals.

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The next season No. 11 Toluca surprised the champs in the wildcard round, knocking out No. 6 León in the wildcard round but came up short against the eventual champs, Cruz Azul.