Champion Zorros barely escape ‘El Volcán’ with their lives

Atlas captain Aldo Rocha (#26) sprints away after converting the series-clinching penalty kick, sending the Zorros back to the Liga MX Final. (Photo by Angel Cervantes/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Atlas captain Aldo Rocha (#26) sprints away after converting the series-clinching penalty kick, sending the Zorros back to the Liga MX Final. (Photo by Angel Cervantes/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
Liga MX Atlas survives tigres
Tigres ace André-Pierre Gignac scored a hat trick to move into 3rd place on the all-time Liga MX playoff scoring list, but it wasn’t enough to prevent elimination. (Photo by JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images) /

Defending champion Atlas converted a penalty in stoppage time to stave off a frenzied fight-back by the Tigres in a chaotic semifinal match that sees the Zorros return to the Liga MX Final on a 5-4 aggregate scoreline.

The No. 2 seeded Tigres took the field needing to score at least 3 goals against the stingiest defense in Liga MX, a seemingly improbable task.

And when Julián Quiñones completed a nifty three-man combo just before halftime, the Zorros’ 4-0 advantage seemed insurmountable.

But then VAR decided to stir things up. Indecisive ref César Ramos played a complementary role, granting a questionable penalty that André-Pierre Gignac converted in minute 54, giving the Tigres a bit of life.

Tigres keep clawing away

Gignac scored again 5 minutes later and “El Volcán” erupted. Adding to the pandemonium, ref Ramos jogged to the sideline monitor a couple more times, waving off one penalty against Atlas, then granting another (and taking back the yellow card for “flopping” he’d shown to Nico Sánchez who was actually the victim on the play).

When Gignac completed his hat trick with 26 minutes still to play, the fans in the stadium and Liga MX fans watching at home were agog. Atlas had not conceded more than 2 goals all season and here they were scrambling to avoid giving up a fourth.

With less than 10 minutes remaining and after a steady barrage of Tigres centering passes, the ball was volleyballed around the box with headers until defender Igor Lichnovsky lunged into a crowd and nodded the ball through a thicket of arms and legs into the net.

The score was 4-1, or 4-4 on aggregate and the Tigres – by virtue of being the higher seed – were in the Liga MX Final.

Not so fast, said the VAR official. Ref Ramos was summoned to the sideline again where he looked at replays of Julián Quiñones chest-trapping a long pass just outside the box (not a handball).

Quiñones had then lobbed a pass into the box where Zorros skipper Aldo Rocha was knocked to the ground by former teammate Jesús Angulo.

Ramos awarded the penalty and, after a lengthy delay and considerable gamesmanship from the Tigres (Florian Thauvin even dug his cleats into the penalty spot twice in hopes of spoiling the ball placement), Rocha fired a low shot past Nahuel Guzmán and it was 4-2 Tigres, but 5-4 favor of Atlas on aggregate.

Atlas still wearing Liga MX crown

Two minutes later, as Quiñones escaped down the left side on a breakaway, a second ball bounded into view, apparently tossed into play by Guzmán. The ref sprinted toward the offending goalie and flashed his red card, sending the netminder to the locker room early.

The embattled Ramos finally whistled the end of the game as the clock ticked past 90+15, and the exhausted Atlas players exulted. Indignant Tigres players crowded around Ramos who showed he was still willing to put his yellow card to use, sanctioning at least one complainant.

The Zorros will play in their second consecutive Liga MX Final in an attempt to claim back-to-back titles.

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The defending Liga MX champs will now wait to see who advances to meet them next week. No. 1 seed Pachuca hosts No. 4 América Sunday night with the two teams knotted at a goal apiece. América must defeat the Tuzos to advance to the Final while Pachuca – undefeated at home this season – will move on with a tie or a win.