Atlas draws first blood … three times
Julio Furch and Luis Reyes served as the picadors and Julián Quiñones delivered the estocada as holders Atlas routed the higher-seeded Tigres 3-0 in a Liga MX semifinal match in Estadio Jalisco.
Furch struck for the defending Liga MX champs in minute 40, converting a penalty kick earned when Quiñones chipped Aníbal Chalá into the box where the speedy Ecuadorian was taken down by Tigres keeper Nahuel Guzmán.
Reyes thrust a dagger into the visiting felinos with a left-footed laser from just outside the box as the clock struck 60 and Quiñones flashed his genius in minute 90, finishing off a solo breakaway by cutting inside defender Igor Lichnovsky and bulging the ol’ onion bag with a beauty of a shot from 24 meters.
The champs travel to Nuevo León for the second leg on Saturday knowing they have taken a giant step toward defending their title. The second-seeded Tigres must win by 3 goals to force overtime and No. 3 seed Atlas hasn’t given up more than 2 goals all season.
The last time any club scored more than 2 goals against these Zorros was in last season’s Liga MX Final on Dec. 9 last year when León netted three times in the first leg of the final. Atlas then blanked the Esmeraldas in the return leg to force overtime, eventually wining the trophy via a penalty kick shootout.
Tigres coach Miguel Herrera will have to come up with a plan to break down an Atlas defense that lost central defender Anderson Santamaría to injury in minute 57. The Zorros were already without midfielder Jeremy Márquez who was serving a red-card suspension, but still held up quite well against the potent Tigres attack.
Atlas keeper Camilo Vargas made two nice saves and defender Emanuel Aguilera made an acrobatic clearance at the goal line in minute 74. Guido Pizarro rang the crossbar early in the second half, but otherwise the Tigres were their own worst enemy, misfiring on shots and ruining opportunities with errant centering passes.
Left winger Florian Thauvin replaced an ineffective Yeferson Soteldo in minute 84 and one wonders if Herrera will return the Frenchman to the starting line-up for Saturday’s contest.
Thauvin missed the first two games of the playoffs with a thigh injury, with Nico López replacing him in the first leg of the quarterfinals against Cruz Azul while Carlos González got the start in the second leg.
As the Tigres scored just 1 goal over those two matches, Herrera opted for the frisky Venezuelan vs Atlas but Soteldo was all frills and little of substance. If Thauvin is fit enough to go 60 minutes, he might get the nod with Herrera throwing extra attackers onto the pitch as needed.
Atlas coach Diego Cocca won’t change much. He’ll likely pull Reyes back into central defense if Santamaría is ruled out (he replaced the injured Santamaría in both games against the Chivas) and will plug the precocious Márquez back into midfield alongside skipper Aldo Rocha.
Zorros fans likely won’t exhale until the powerful Tigres have been subdued once and for all, but as this Atlas defense has conceded just 17 goals in 20 matches this season, a return to the Liga MX Final would certainly appear to be a good bet.
The other Liga MX semifinal series kicks off Thursday night with No. 4 América playing host to top-seeded Pachuca in the first leg. The return match is scheduled for Sunday night.