Tigres defender Jesús Angulo was the unlikeliest of heroes, his 74th-minute golazo giving the defending champs a huge leg up in their Liga MX semifinal series against the 4th-seeded Pumas.
Angulo let fly from 25 meters, his left-footed blast beating Pumas goalie Julio Gonzáléz who got a piece of the shot but only managed to redirect it off the inside of the post.
The game-winner developed from a corner kick which “los felinos” played out, three Tigres touching the ball to move it around the box from left-to-right with Rafa Carioca supplying the square pass that set up Angulo.
The champs – seeded No. 3 – will take a 1-0 lead back home to “El Volcán” where UNAM will have to win by 2 goals on Sunday to prevent Tigres from having a chance at back-to-back titles.
Tigres nursing some bumps and bruises
The match was a scrappy affair as ref Marco Antonio Ortiz allowed some rather physical play. While Tigres looked tentative at the outset, Pumas were on the front foot in the early going.
Midway through the first half, the visitors started controlling the tempo, patient in possession while probing for openings in the UNAM defense.
Playmakers Sebastián Córdova and Diego Lainez were not on tune, and González was willing to come off his line to corral loose crosses into his area – and even out of his area (the netminder rushed out of his box to head away a lead pass but his clearance dropped to Córdova whose quick shot from 35 meters sailed high over the vacated net.
In minute 22, Córdova – the MVP of Tigres march to the title last season – led a fast break that nearly broke the deadlock, Nico Ibáñez executing a flying volley that clanged off the outside of the right post.
In minute 35, Angulo coughed up an outlet pass on the left flank and Ulises Rivas raced in alone on Nahuel Guzmán who palmed away the low shot then thwarted the Pumas’ follow-up attempt. The defender came close to being the goat with his sloppy play.
González matched Guzmán’s heroics a moment later, stoning Javier Aquino who shook off his marker inside the box before firing a laser from close range that the goalie blocked with his chest at the near post.
Angulo had a scoring chance before the half, but his header was swatted away by a diving González.
The intensity and physical play took its toll with Pumas defender Jesús Rivas forced off early with a hamstring strain while Tigres Angulo, Ibáñez and Juan Pablo Vigón required on-field treatment during the first 45 minutes.
Rash challenge costs Pumas dearly
Tigres were more dangerous after the restart though a gaffe by Guzmán nearly cost them.
The enigmatic Tigres keeper hesitated with the ball at his feet and his delayed clearance was deflected to Eduardo Salvio who stepped into the box where Angulo toe-poked the ball away, though captain Guido Pizarro picked up a yellow card as he tried to clean up the mess.
The teams then traded chances, each side pushing forward in search of the opener.
The game – and perhaps the series – turned just past the hour mark when Santiago Trigos tried to dispossess Rafa Carioca from behind. Trigos’ hasty lunge caught the Tigres midfielder between the calf and the ankle and a VAR review confirmed the foul was worthy of a red card.
Tigres dominated possession thereafter but the hosts continued to take their pound of flesh, Aquino and Córdova both spending time on the turf clutching at their legs.
After Angulo’s heroics, the Pumas briefly lamented their bad luck before recovering their focus.
Despite being down to 10 men, the Mexico City side chased the equalizer, hoping to lessen the task ahead them in Monterrey on Sunday.
The Pumas did manage to throw a few more shots at Guzmán but none tested the Tigres portero although a Jesús Molina bicycle kick in stoppage time forced a reflex save
Tigres are now 90 minutes from a return to the final where they are likely to run into the top-seeded Aguilas of América, a 5-0 winner over No. 8 Atlético de San Luis in the first leg of the other semifinal series.