Leon came back from an early setback to earn a well-deserved 1-1 with Cruz Azul at the Estadio Leon on Wednesday evening.
The game pitted the newly-crowned CONCACAF champions against the reigning Mexican league champions, with fans of both sides uncertain about who would emerge victorious.
Leon had been difficult to accurately assess this season after prioritizing the Copa Libertadores over the Clausura, while Cruz Azul’s large lead in the league table afforded them the luxury of resting players in the Clausura to keep them fresh for the continental assignments.
Cruz Azul evidently knew that Leon’s eighth placed finish belied their quality as they looked to begin quickly and silence the partisan crowd. They got the dream start when Argentine Mariano Pavone broke the deadlock after just three minutes. The striker got on the end of Rogelio Chavez’s free kick to flick the ball past the helpless William Yarbrough from eight yards out.
Instead of motivating the side, the goal seemed to make Cruz Azul play with a tension and nervousness that had been unseen throughout 2014 - as Leon slowly exerted a growing pressure.
Montes and Boselli both went close, but it was Jose Maria "Chema" Cardenas who eventually grabbed the inevitable equalizer after twenty minutes. Following some intricate build-up play Mauro Boselli executed a perfect back-heel to wrong-foot Julio Domínguez and leave the ball in the path of the Mexican defender - with Cardenas drilling it in from 18 yards.
The remainder of the half saw veteran center back Rafa Marquez play an important role. Leon were unlucky not to grab their second when Boselli couldn't stretch far enough to turn in Marquez’s header, while at the other end the Mexican captain did well to cut out Joao Rojas’ dangerous cross on thirty five minutes and make a vital intervention on Pavone when he broke free just two minutes later.
The second half failed to begin at the same frenetic pace as the first period, with both sides seemingly more concerned about conceding than scoring.
There was drama in the 62nd minute when loanee Marco Fabian almost turned Peña’s cross into his own goal, and Cruz Azul came close to scoring a second own goal with fifteen minutes remaining when a ricochet between Jesus Corona and Dominguez nearly saw the ball end up in the back of the net.
At the other end Juan Gonzalez was Leon’s standout performer, twice making an important block to prevent Yarbrough from being tested. Yarbrough himself had a quiet game, though he made an excellent late save from Ismael Valadez’s long range effort.
Jesus Corona was arguably Man Of The Match as he made a string of great saves throughout the game to keep Cruz Azul in the tie - though Leon’s Rafa Marquez was also impressive. His defensive organisation and potent attacking threat are both qualities that El Tri will be very grateful of in Brazil.
The teams go again at 8:00pm EST (7:00pm local Mexico time) in the Estadio Azul in Mexico City. The away goals rule means Cruz Azul have a slender advantage, though they will be aware that a Leon goal could quickly change the complexion of the tie.