In a year of irregularity, the usually unpredictable Liga MX ended on a note of regularity: the best team won the title.
In Sunday’s 2020 Liga MX Guard1anes — named in dedication to Mexico’s healthcare professionals — final, Club Leon overcame Pumas UNAM 2-0 (3-1 on aggregate) in what turned out to be a fairly routine and comfortable victory against an opponent that had boldly punched above its weight all season.
There was to be no epic comeback this time for Pumas like the famous 4-0 semifinal second leg victory over Cruz Azul. But then Leon is not Cruz Azul.
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This Leon team is sure of itself after two years under Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz; there has been no better team than Leon in Liga MX over that time. Pick a stat — goals scored, wins, fewest losses, Expected Goals (xG) — and Leon is either at the top of the table or close to it over Ambriz’s period in charge. This season, Leon lost once over 17 regular season games and only twice in the 23 matches on route to the title.
What had been missing for Ambriz and this group of players was obvious: some silverware. And time was running out for this aging group of players. A devastating 3-0 loss to LAFC in the round of 16 second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League ended the possibility of winning that tournament and raised questions about the team’s game management in knockout series, while the 2020 Clausura was cancelled after it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a short-term problem. In other words, it was the tile or yet another disappointment for Leon.
This liguilla and Sunday’s final second leg didn’t highlight the ultra-positive, attack-minded fluidity that has become associated with Ambriz’s Leon. Instead, there was better control as La Fiera appeared to learn from past failures to overcome Pumas.
Leon came out firing initially and when Emmanuel Gigliotti netted from a shot Alfredo Talavera should have done better at keeping out, it looked from there as though the home side would overrun Pumas.
But instead of chasing that second goal, Leon instead dropped, perhaps in part because key winger Angel Mean was forced off with an injury in the 15th minute. Pumas took the initiative and ended the game with 59% possession, but the xG of 0.50 over the 90 minutes highlighted the problems the university team from Mexico City had at creating real chances.
Leon, who dominated possession in the vast majority of regular season games, changed tack in the playoffs, becoming a more calculated team, highlighting a level of evolution and maturity.
The next stage in what could be the last few months of Ambriz’s stint — he has said he wants to go to Europe — is an assault on next season’s CONCACAF Champions League.
“I have a contract until May, it’s not in my head to talk about renewing right now,” Ambriz said on Mexican TV. “Tomorrow I’ll sit down with my coaching staff to plan the preseason; we also have a chance at revenge in CONCACAF, we’re hoping for two or three new signings to get that revenge.”
It was a special night for 36-year-old defender Juan Ignacio Gonzalez. The center-back had played only 36 minutes this season before the second leg of the final, but stepped in with Jaine Barreiro out suspended and was a rock at the heart of the defense in what was his last game before retirement.
Gonzalez was part of the famous Leon side that won back-to-back championships in the 2013 Apertura and 2014 Clausura, as was Luis “Chapito” Montes — surely the MVP this season in Liga MX. The two of them lifted the trophy together.
“The arrival of ‘Nacho’ Ambriz helped us a lot to change everything, the playing system; now we have fun with the ball but the championship didn’t arrive and now thanks to God it is here,” Montes said on TV afterwards.
Overall, it was an unusual season for Liga MX. Not allowing fans into the playoffs was a responsible decision on the part of the league and authorities, but it did put into sharp focus how much they bring to these occasions.
Just getting to the end of the campaign feels like an achievement of sorts. Well over 30% of players in Liga MX tested positive for COVID-19 this year, with Club Tijuana confirming 30 members of the squad had come back positive back in September. It was remarkable in some ways that the season stayed on course.
Then there was the new playoff structure, with places 5-12 having a one-game play-in round. That seemed to work and with Monterrey exiting to minnow Puebla, there may be increased emphasis on finishing inside the top four and automatically qualifying for the quarterfinals from next season.
The 2020 Guard1anes also produced one of the great Liga MX comebacks when Pumas somehow managed to turn around a 4-0 semifinal first leg loss and win 4-0 in the second. Cruz Azul’s manager Robert Siboldi has since left the club and the players have to pick themselves up for Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against LAFC in Florida.
But amidst the upheaval of this bizarre season, there was one constant: Club Leon was the team to beat. And perhaps more than any other side in recent Liga MX history, this group of players and Ambriz deserved to lift the trophy at the end of it.