Mena leads León to third Liga MX final since 2019

Ángel Mena celebrates after scoring León's first goal in the Liga MX semifinal against the visiting Tigres. (Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images)
Ángel Mena celebrates after scoring León's first goal in the Liga MX semifinal against the visiting Tigres. (Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images) /
Liga MX semifinal Leon wins
León fans were out in full throat for the Liga MX semifinal match against the Tigres. They’ll get to witness “la Gran Final” too as the Esmeraldas will host the second leg of the Liga MX Finals next weekend. (Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images) /

León punches ticket to Liga MX Final with late effort

Angel Mena scored early and late to lead León to its third Liga MX Finals appearance in the past six seasons. The third-seeded Esmeraldas defeated the No. 4 Tigres 2-1, leveling the aggregate score at 3-3 and sending the higher-seeded club through.

Mena scored in minute 8 when Santiago Columbatto picked Javier Aquino’s pocket above the box and poked the ball to the Ecuadorian winger in the right side of the box. Mena moved a bit closer then fired just beyond the outstretched fingertips of Nahuel Guzmán and inside the far post.

The home fans at the Camp Nou didn’t get to celebrate for too long as a lapse in concentration by defender Osvaldo Rodríguez allowed the Tigres to tie the score soon thereafter (and move ahead 3-2 on aggregate). Off a set piece, Rodríguez was the sole Esmeraldas defender who failed to move out in line and that kept Diego Reyes onside. The Tigres defender was all alone behind the defense when he flicked a deflected centering pass past a helpless Rodolfo Cota.

With the clock ticking down in the second half, Mena’s hustle and grit produced the series-winning goal.

A quick León transition into its offensive third led to three rapid-fire shots – two saved brilliantly by Guzmán, the other blocked by a sliding Tigres defender. Esmeraldas defender William Tesillo collected the ball about 25 out, stepped around Rafa Carioca and ripped a shot that caromed off Mena who poked the ricochet to teammate Jean Meneses who raced to the touchline and chipped a wobbly cross over Guzmán at the near post. The ball floated toward the back post where Mena met it with his forehead and nodded it over the line.

A melee erupted after the goal, spilling out onto the field with pushing and shoving (and maybe a rabbit punch or two) resulting in a couple of red cards being shown. Play resumed after a 5-minute delay.

Coach Holan got it right, Herrera not so much

First-year León coach Ariel Holan doesn’t always get the credit he deserves because his predecessor Ignacio Ambriz left him a cohesive team fully prepared to contend for the Liga MX title. But then long-term injuries to key cogs Luis Montes and Fernando Navarro made for a real slog during the regular season.

After the Esmeraldas were smothered by the Tigres in the first leg of the Liga MX semifinals, Holan tweaked his line-up for the return leg and it made a difference. Out were Omar Fernández and Santiago Ormeño and in came José Ramírez (he added girth to midfield) and Jean Meneses (constantly pestering the back line with swervy runs with the ball or racing after through passes).

In the second half, Holan took off the error-prone Rodríguez and inserted playmaking midfielder Montes. León began to sustain possessions though too often wasting them by forcing passes or sending in aimless crosses to be gathered in by Guzmán (the Argentine keeper was busy all game and he made six sparkling saves).

At the same time, Herrera went conservative, seeking to protect the slim lead. Visions of Holland at the 2014 World Cup flashed across my mind. With El Tri leading 1-0 in the Round of 16, Herrera went conservative and as Mexico withdrew, space was readily available for the Dutch to find a late equalizer, and an even later penalty kick.

As the second half progressed, Herrera started coaching defensively, subbing out players with yellow cards regardless of the on-field tactical consequences. Out came André-Pierre Gignac, Luis Quiñones and Luis Rodríguez. By the end, the Tigres were on their heels and scrambling frantically.

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León will face the winner of the other Liga MX semifinal where No. 2 seeded Atlas takes a 1-0 lead into its home stadium against the 11th-seeded Pumas, who must win by two goals. The Esmeraldas defeated UNAM only a year ago, claiming the Guardianes 2020 trophy by beating the Pumas 3-1 on aggregate.