Liga MX Final: Furch, Atlas make it two in a row

Atlas goal-scorer Julio Furch kisses the Liga MX trophy after the Zorros successfully defended their title by beating Pachuca. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Atlas goal-scorer Julio Furch kisses the Liga MX trophy after the Zorros successfully defended their title by beating Pachuca. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /
Atlas bicampeon
Julio Furch (bottom right) thumped his first-half penalty shot to the right as Pachuca goalie Oscar Ustari lunged left. The conversion earned Atlas a 3-2 aggregate win over Pachuca and its second straight Liga MX title. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Once again, a Julio Furch penalty kick was the difference as Atlas won its second straight Liga MX title with a taut 3-2 aggregate victory over No. 1 seed Pachuca.

Furch’s winning spot kick in minute 45 pushed the aggregate score to 3-1 but the Zorros had to survive a quick response by the Tuzos (Nico Ibáñez’s header in minute 45+9 – yes, you read that right – made it 3-2) and a red card to left back Aníbal Chalá in minute 83 before claiming the trophy.

Last season, Furch fired home the winning penalty kick as Atlas defeated León in a shootout to win its first Liga MX championship in 70 years.

Now the Zorros have back-to-back titles, just the third Liga MX team to repeat since the short-season format was adopted in 1996. (Pumas in 2004 and León in 2013-2014 are the other two teams with bicampeonatos.)

 ‘A lo Atlas’ (Winning Atlas-style) is the watchword

Atlas entered the second leg of the Clausura 2022 Final with a 2-0 lead but failed to protect the advantage very long. Romario Ibarra beat José Abella and Anderson Santamaría off the dribble and into the box deep left, sized up goalie Camilo Vargas, then ripped a right-footer just past the heads of Hugo Nervo Luis Reyes and into the side netting inside the far post.

The champs did not panic, however, and their constant pressure rattled the top-seeded Tuzos, forcing a number of mistakes and squandered opportunities. Pachuca’s shaky fundamentals – poor first touches, missed traps – and sloppy execution was partially attributable to the pesky Atlas defense, but several key players turned in sub-par games.

Right wing Avilés Hurtado was a turnover machine in the first half, midfielders Luis Chánez and Víctor Guzmán exhibited poor decision-making throughout and young left back Daniel Aceves followed up a cringe-worthy first-leg performance with a inconsistent game Sunday night. Aceves was called for the critical penalty by forgetting the defenders’ mantra – always put your hands behind your back when challenging inside the box.

Still, Ibánez found the net just before the break (two lengthy VAR delays and otherwise inept game management by ref Fernando Hernández resulted in 9 minutes of stoppage time) and then the Tuzos came roaring out of the tunnel to start the second half.

Midfield bulldog Aldo Rocha – the Atlas captain – countered with ferocious marking, leading his team’s rugged defensive stand. The Zorros were first to the ball often, Rocha and Edgar Zaldívar were constantly clogging passing lanes, and Furch and Julián Quiñones tirelessly battled for long balls.

The clock slowly ticked away, the intensity rising steadily, occasionally enhanced by the maddeningly inconsistent performance of ref Hernández. Twice the Tuzos saw goal-bound shots ricochet off a scrum of legs inside the box and an Erick Sánchez centering pass deflected by a sliding Hugo Nervo skittered across the entire goal mouth with nary a Pachuca foot nearby to redirect.

Then the drama began. Chalá was wrongly sent off after accidentally stepping on Guzmán’s ankle and Atlas was really back on its heels. Unfortunately, the Tuzos proceed to make a litany of unforced turnovers and time ran out.

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Atlas manager Diego Cocca is now 2-0 in Liga MX Finals while his counterpart Guillermo Almada is now 0-2. Almada came up short against Cruz Azul while coaching Santos Laguna in May 2021. Pachuca is now 6-4 in Finals while Atlas improved to 2-1 (the Zorros’ third title came back in 1950-51 when the league used a long-season format, i.e. no playoffs).