Liga MX Finals: Atlas has Clausura 2022 trophy within its grasp

Atlas midfielder Luis Reyes got the defending champs off to a rollicking start with a thunderous header midway through the first half as the Zorros took the first leg of the Liga MX Finals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Atlas midfielder Luis Reyes got the defending champs off to a rollicking start with a thunderous header midway through the first half as the Zorros took the first leg of the Liga MX Finals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Atlas 2 Pachuca 0
Atlas forward Julián Quiñones prepares to fire home the clincher as Pachuca defender Daniel Aceves gives chase. Tuzos defender Miguel Tapias can be seen on the ground in the background after being beaten by Quiñones. (Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images) /

A magnificent late Julián Quiñones goal and sparkling goaltending by Atlas keeper Camilo Vargas will force the top-seeded Tuzos to dig out of a deep 2-0 hole as the host Zorros took a giant step toward repeating as Liga MX champs.

Three minutes into stoppage time, Quiñones chased down a long clearance pass then outworked, outmuscled and outraced three Pachuca defenders before left-footing a shot past Oscar Ustari, deflating the scrambling Tuzos who had been pressing forward for the equalizer.

Midfielder Luis Reyes had given Atlas a 1-0 lead in minute 26, completing a move he started with a pass out wide to Javier Abella and then racing into the box to power home a header.

The Finals now switch to Estadio Hidalgo Sunday night with Pachuca knowing it must win by at least 2 goals if it is to hoist its seventh Liga MX trophy.

Atlas makes clear it intends to hold onto its crown

No. 1 Pachuca got off to a slow start at Estadio Jalisco Thursday night, finding trouble breaking down the Atlas defense while also squandering opportunities with careless turnovers.

The Zorros enjoyed the lion’s share of possession early on while the Tuzos’ only success came with three Kevin Álvarez rushes down the right flank, two of which forced big-time saves from Vargas.

The Atlas goal came off a Vargas punt that Julio Furch brought down to the trailing Reyes about 30 meters out. The Atlas academy alum quickly found a hustling Abella all alone out wide as Pachuca’s transition defense was slow to react. Abella’s picture perfect centering pass allowed Reyes to punctuate the fast break and Estadio Jalisco erupted with a roar.

Just before the half, the Tuzos created a splendid chance down the right side and a cross was headed on to the back post where Víctor Guzmán was lurking. “El Pocho” sprung into the ball with all his might as Vargas came back across the goal mouth just in time to smother the shot.

Zorros coach Diego Cocca was determined to make the one-goal lead stand up and his midfield trio of Reyes, Edgar Zaldívar and skipper Aldo Rocha ratcheted up the pressure, preventing the potent Pachuca offense from finding its rhythm as the second half opened.

Atlas then began losing a battle of attrition in its back line as first Emanuel Aguilera then Anderson Santamaría were forced out with injury. In minute 67, Vargas again denied Guzmán at the back post with a diving save.

The Tuzos threw everything forward, raining crosses into the box while managing 10 shots after halftime. Reyes (again making a big play) and left wingback Aníbal Chalá each made timely interventions to cut away Pachuca passes into the box as the clock neared 80 minutes.

Atlas was on its heels, desperately trying to hold on as the Tuzos buzzed around the net a few minutes into stoppage time. A cross skipped wide and Rocha chased it down and thumped high and long hoping to kill some clock.

Quiñones gave chase with Erick Sánchez trying to hold off the powerful forward. Instead of knocking the ball back to either of his two teammates or his goalie, Sánchez lost position and failed to secure the ball. Quiñones spun away from the sideline but Daniel Aceves stepped into his path, obstructing the Colombian. But Aceves didn’t clear the ball either and Quiñones muscled past the young fullback, collected the ball, dribbled past defender Miguel Tapias and found himself all alone with Ustari. Quiñones made no mistake, bulging the back of the net with his trusty left boot.

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Atlas is now 90 minutes from claiming back-to-back titles and would be only the third Liga MX club to pull off that feat since the short-season format began in 1996. It won’t be easy, however, as Pachuca was the league’s best home team, posting a 6-2-0 record during the Clausura 2022 and winning both of its playoff games to date.