The first leg of the Liga MX final played out last night in Tijuana. For many, the end result was very much the expected. Tijuana came out with a 2-1 victory on their home field and will take their one goal advantage to the second leg in Toluca on Sunday. The end result might have been expected, but how it came to pass was a little out of left field.
The oddness of yesterday's match was highlighted by the tactics Toluca's manager, Enrique Meza, decided to bring on to the field. Toluca came out to start the game looking to sit back and defend above everything else. Toluca planned to absorb the Tijuana pressure and counter when the opportunity presented itself. It certainly is a solid strategy. It propelled Chelsea to a Champions League title just six months ago.
The catch is that not every team can execute this kind of a game plan. In order to have success in absorbing that kind of pressure for an extended period of time, the team needs to possess a lockdown defense. They need to be ridiculously strong and coordinated. The midfield also needs to have a strong defensive inclination. With the full weight of pressure from the opposition pouring forward, it's an 'all hands on deck' situation. When sitting back in such a manner, a team is also looking to steal a goal on the break with the opposition pulled forward. This requires forwards who can hurt the opposition with their speed and killer finishing.
Toluca is bereft of nearly all of these luxuries. Toluca's defense is solid, but no more than that. They have a great goalkeeper in Talavera, but their back line is only competent. They are not a group that can sit back and use their strength as a unit to shutout their opponents. Their midfield, while immensely talented and the strength of the team, isn't full of defensive stalwarts. Luis Tejada is a great striker, but doesn't have the speed to hurt teams on the counter. He is best suited to play off his talented midfield in attacking areas, but his midfield was stuck trying to futilely defend the Tijuana attack the whole night.
Tijuana doesn't have crazy offensive firepower to scare their opponents. That is not to say they are missing dynamic talent up front that can make a difference. They aren't. Tijuana is just not an offensive juggernaut. However, when you give them the number of chances that Toluca gave them last night, they will eventually capitalize. Fidel (not Neymar) Martinez was making a habit of squandering chances with poor passes and sloppy handling. Yet, on his 850th chance to make an impact, he did just that. He found himself space in front of net and was able to sneak one past Talavera for Tijuana's first goal. Tijuana later would get their second off a beautifully played free kick from a dangerous position. It could be looked at as bad luck for Toluca to give one up on a free kick, but that would be a mistake. When you are defending in your final third for forty-five minutes, you are surely going to commit some fouls. Toluca did and they eventually paid for them.
It wasn't all a disaster for Toluca in the first half. They did get their goal. This was more the result of a defensive blunder than anything Toluca was doing tactically. Edgar Castillo found himself out of position during one of the few times Toluca got forward with the ball. Toluca capitalized with an Edgar Benitez goal.
Meza switched tactics at the half, letting his midfield loose. Suddenly the game evened out. Tijuana didn't have the wealth of opportunities they had in the first half. The game ground down into a stalemate that was most certainly stale. It wasn't great to watch, but Toluca had a chance. They could've had an individual moment of brilliance from Silva, Sinha, or Tejada. It was possible. And unlike the first half, they had a chance at coming out of this first leg with something other than a deficit.
Heading to the second leg in Toluca, the final is still up for grabs. For me, Tijuana is the stronger and more complete team. Tijuana has a goal advantage and is more prepared to defend a lead than any team in the league. They should come out on top after Sunday's game. They certainly have a great chance that was made even stronger by Toluca's bizarre approach in the first leg.