This year's CONCACAF Champions League final looked a lot like a coronation for Tigres UANL. Historically a team of modest achievements, UANL has turned itself into a Liga MX heavyweight in recent years, winning two of the last three top-flight titles in Mexico, and making the finals of the 2015 Copa Libertadores and 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. And it landed in its second consecutive CCL final having just completed pair of thumping home wins in Liga MX: surely, this would be Tigres' moment to claim an international title at the third attempt, furthering the claim that the team is the best in Mexico and CONCACAF.
But in the third minute of the first leg, a deflected free kick handed Pachuca - almost forgotten in pre-game discussion of Tigres' manifest strength, depth, and good form - an early lead.
GOAL Pachuca, Raul LOPEZ No. 6 | @TigresOficial @Tuzos #SCCL #SoyAficionado pic.twitter.com/CyD12AjPM7— CONCACAF (@CONCACAF) April 19, 2017
Not just the lead, but also an away goal - the first tiebreaker if this home-and-away series ends all square.
Tigres responded with heavy pressure; an equalizer seemed inevitable. And it came in the 32nd minute, when Pachuca 'keeper Alfonso Blanco stretched to intercept a cross but fumbled the save, presenting Ismael Sosa with a tap-in.
GOAL Tigres, Ismael SOSA No. 18 | @TigresOficial @Tuzos #SCC #SoyAficionado pic.twitter.com/sUkDNQl00z— CONCACAF (@CONCACAF) April 19, 2017
If that was how Los Tuzos were going to (mis)handle Tigres' pressure, it was going to be a long night for Pachuca. The visiting team got to half-time with the score still 1-1, and even made it halfway through the second half without conceding again. But Tigres forced another error in the 66th minute: Pachuca captain, Erick Gutierrez, made a frantic effort to block a shot on goal - and conceded a penalty.
YELLOW CARD Pachuca, Erick GUTIERREZ No. 15 | @TigresOficial @Tuzos #SCCL #SoyAficionado pic.twitter.com/Jj7JYncaF3— CONCACAF (@CONCACAF) April 19, 2017
Blanco turned from villain to hero, saving Eduardo Vargas' spot kick. And Pachuca held on for the 1-1 draw.
Tigres 1-1 Pachuca Highlights | @TigresOficial @Tuzos #SCCL @ScotiabankFC #SoyAficionado pic.twitter.com/zsSiXCdRts— CONCACAF (@CONCACAF) April 19, 2017
Tigres had the opportunities to make the second leg of this final almost irrelevant to the outcome, but didn't take them.
The first-leg result sets up a grand finale for this year's CCL. UANL will remain favorite for the title because it remains, fundamentally, a very good team. Also, it has been in this position before in this tournament: in the quarterfinals, Tigres tied Pumas, 1-1, in the first leg; UANL won the second leg on the road, 3-0.
But Pachuca has seen this sort of situation too. Tigres has played both the quarterfinals and semifinals of this edition of CCL as the lower seed - playing the second leg on the road and appearing to enjoy the challenge. Pachuca has been the higher seed for every stage of this year's knockout rounds, and it has always appeared to have given its opponent a chance after the first leg.
In the quarterfinals, Los Tuzos' 0-0 draw with Saprissa in the first game meant the Costa Rican club would be in a strong position to advance if it could find a goal in Pachuca: it didn't. Los Tuzos romped past Saprissa with a 4-0 second-leg win. In the semifinals, a 2-1 loss in Dallas put further pressure on Pachuca - which it handled with a 3-1 win over FCD at home in the second leg.
Neither team in this final lacks the experience or ability to lift the trophy from here. Form and relative squad depth appear to favor Tigres; the first leg result and home advantage in the second make a strong case for Pachuca to upset expectations.
All to play for on April 26 in the conclusion of this season's CCL.