Neat game – quite possibly because it wasn’t expected. That goes double for the second half. Between a couple Motagua players and the field, the Honduran team played the stronger game. Pachuca still looked the better team, but that’s only in the abstract: by the end of the first half, I would have pegged the Mexicans to steal it; by the end of the game, I’d say they were lucky things ended as if tonight never happened.
Put those big themes together and one has to think Motagua lost tonight’s game. They chased the Mexicans stupid over the first 15 minutes and showed they could play with them throughout the second half; hell, they showed they could outplay Pachuca from the 55th minute on. What was missing? Maybe that little extra bit of quality, the kind of professional cool and precision Pachuca’s players flashed in the first half? Or maybe it was what was there, namely Miguel Calero. For what it’s worth, Calero played his typical game, but he wasn’t outstanding.
As I see it, Motagua lacked a little in quality. Apart from two, three nearly sure-thing shots on goal that Calero, to his credit, scrambled to safety, they either wasted the chances they had or stumbled a step or two after an alert – and ragged – Pachuca defense.
Keeping with the big themes, Motagua generally played the aggressor, while Pachuca counter-punched. Pachuca’s best extended spell lasted from the 25th to 45th minute, during which they took advantage of Motagua’s slackened pressure, and not only held possession, but managed a couple quality shots by way of bonus. Even in the second half, when they dropped to the back-foot in earnest, the Mexicans enjoyed great spells when they’d come at Motagua like waves – i.e., pushing forward, then receding, only to push a little farther forward again. They pulled this off when players pinged together a series of short passes, constantly changed to point of attack; not coincidentally, this promptly fell apart every time they hesitated on the ball.
To mention another theme, Motagua’s approach evolved through the night. They started with classic underdog tactics: if you can’t outplay them, beat them by effort and will to win. Over the opening 15, a Pachuca player couldn’t blink before a lumbering Honduran settled on their shoulders. The pressure loosened but never let up entirely, in spite of what Fox’s commentators said. At the same time, by the early stages of the second half, the realization they could play with Pachuca settled in. They kept pressing – a couple of their best chances came through pressuring Pachuca defenders – but they also got smarter, adopting a strategy of slowly choking off Mexican attackers further up-field.
On the subject of Mexican attackers, a few Pachuca players gave the Hondurans plenty to worry about on the return leg. Christian Gimenez (who, age considered, I’d welcome to MLS, even as a DP), found room, plugged a shot or two, and generally wrecked havoc out there; Gabriel Caballero, though generally disappointing, had a moment or two, as did substitutes Luis Montes and Andres Chitiva. But my first half Man O’ the Match, Damien Alvarez, generally held Pachuca together through the initial onslaught and, to greater and lesser extent, until his too early departure. On the liability side, it was all defenders: Fernando Salazar, in occasional collaboration with Julio Cezar Manzur, rendered the Mexicans’ left a Full-Time Fun Zone, one, apparently, with a big welcome mat for Hondurans named Emilio Izaguirre. You can plug that one as Man O’ the Match overall, but Izaguirre profited from some serious confusion down the Honduran defensive right. Honorable mention for the Hondurans goes to Josmer Nascimento and the friggin’ giants that comprise Motagua’s back four. I mean…damn…
The hard reality for the Hondurans, however, is what will change on the return leg. More important than the altitude, Pachuca’s players will have a better pitch under the feet by then and, given how close a couple of their better moves came to off, I’m confident they’ll score at least one in Mexico. In honesty, the pitch was a bigger factor than it should have been tonight. From what I’ve seen, Pachuca thrives on short, sharp passes into tight spaces, something they tried and failed to pull of several times tonight. That will work better by far against Motagua’s monumental defenders than the long-range efforts and crosses did tonight.
So, what are Motagua’s chances? Unless Salazar had a horror night out there, he’s the weak link in Pachuca’s defense; as they did in the second half tonight, Motagua could do a lot worse than run their counter-attacks down that same throat. All they need is a goal…though, for the record, I don’t think they’re going to get it.