League’s top defenses combine for 7-goal outburst

Former Pachuca star Rodolfo Pizarro (left) gave his old team fits but he and his Monterrey mates came up short in their Liga MX semifinal match Thursday night. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Former Pachuca star Rodolfo Pizarro (left) gave his old team fits but he and his Monterrey mates came up short in their Liga MX semifinal match Thursday night. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
Liga MX semis 4
Pachuca’s Nico Ibáñez celebrates after converting a penalty kick to give his team a 4-2 advantage in their Liga MX semifinal match against Monterrey. Ibáñez would complete his hat trick a few minutes later (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

There were plenty of fireworks at the Estadio Hidalgo Thursday night as Pachuca punctured Monterrey’s league-leading defense five times and will head north for the second leg of their Liga MX semifinal with a 5-2 advantage.

The fourth-seeded Tuzos took advantage of a leaky Rayados back line with Nico Ibáñez – the Liga MX Golden Boot winner this season – bagging a hat trick.

The hosts were helped by a 64th-minute red card and two favorable calls late, including a penalty that was upheld despite a VAR intervention.

Pachuca goalie Oscar Ustari made the key play of the match in minute 81, parrying aside a Rogelio Funes Mori penalty kick – one the keeper himself had conceded with a reckless challenge. Had Funes Mori converted from the spot, the score would have been 3-3.

Experimental line-up confuses Pachuca

Monterrey coach Víctor Manuel Vucetich switched things up for the first leg, opening with a rarely used 4-5-1 line-up that flooded midfield and had Pachuca on its heels throughout the first half. The Tuzos – the second-best defense in Liga MX – seemed confused by the constant movement and spent much of the opening 45 minutes chasing the ball.

Despite little possession, Pachuca was able to play from ahead for a couple stretches in the first half.

Poor marking on a corner kick in minute 9 allowed Ibáñez to trundle the ball into the net, the first goal the second-seeded Rayados had conceded since Sept. 6. Monterrey evened the score 6 minutes later off a set piece with Héctor Moreno doing the honors thanks to a splendid volley by Stefan Medina.

In minute 23, Rayados pressure at the near sideline had Pachuca scrambling until defender Oscar Murillo – rock solid throughout the match – thumped a long ball forward that Romario Ibarra hustled onto, outracing left back Jesús Gallardo. The Tuzos winger brought the ball under control with one touch then quickly tucked a left-footer under the onrushing Esteban Andrada.

Playing from behind, Monterrey continued to attack. The Rayados several times sustained possession in and around the box, and their reward came in minute 40. After extended control in their offensive third, an entry pass was deflected. Luis Romo reacted first, firing a low shot through a crowd that left Ustari no chance.

Tuzos quick off the mark

Pachuca regained the lead just 2 minutes after the break when Ibarra created some space while wide left and delivered a perfect cross to the back post where sub Paulino de la Fuente headed it home.

Once again, Monterrey responded by surging forward, sniffing at goal. In addition to being the league’s best defense (12 goals allowed), the Rayados boast the third-best offense in Liga MX (29 goals), so their effectiveness in attack was not a big surprise.

The visitors seemed likely to find the equalizer, enjoying a 59% possession rate while keeping Pachuca on its heels. Then calamity struck.

Near the midfield stripe, Erick Aguirre stuck his boot out to slow down a Tuzos counterattack and caught Marino Hinestroza in the abdomen. A VAR review caused ref César Ramos to change yellow to red and Aguirre was sent to the showers, while Hinestroza was forced to the locker room for treatment after only seeing 5 minutes of playing time.

Then came the dramatics. First the Funes Mori penalty miss. The ensuing Monterrey corner kick was cleared with Erick Sánchez collecting the ball a few meters outside the box and taking off on a mad dash of 70 meters. As he dribbled into the Rayados’ box, he crashed to the ground under a challenge by Celso Ortiz.

Ref Ramos signaled penalty, made a quick replay review then reaffirmed his call, a call that was questionable at best as Sánchez appeared to crumple after the slightest contact.

Monterrey’s protests were ignored and Ibáñez converted the spot kick for a 4-2 lead. It would get worse for the Rayados.

Ibáñez gave chase to a long pass into the box, but César Montes beat him to the ball, tackling it out of play. But as he did so, Ibáñez took a belated swing and his right foot slammed into the sliding Montes’ calf. It was a clear foul, but ref Ramos awarded a corner kick for Pachuca.

The hosts took advantage of a poor clearance to knock home their fifth. Luis Chávez fired away from just outside the box, but the shot was blocked to Mauricio Isaias whose shot from the half-moon was deflected but looped toward the net. Andrada lunged and swatted the ball, knocking it off the crossbar only to see Ibáñez race in to knock it home.

Questionable officiating and bad breaks were costly to be sure, but the norteños had given up just five goals in their previous 12 games. The two teams meet again on Sunday and the host Rayados will have to win by at least 3 goals to get past Pachuca.

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Elsewhere in Liga MX

In the other Liga MX semifinal, underdog Toluca takes a 2-1 advantage into Estadio Azteca for their return match against top-seeded América. The Diablos Rojos managed to halt the Aguilas’ 14-game unbeaten streak and need just a draw on Sunday to advance to their 13th Liga MX Final.