Fireworks crackled every so often over Estadio Universitario. Tigres UANL launched them into the night sky with each goal, each step toward the expected Liga MX title. This comprehensive performance -- an utterly dominant 3-0 victory over Pumas UNAM in the first leg of the Liguilla final on Thursday -- deserved every sparkle.
Every star in the Tigres side took his turn to shine. André-Pierre Gignac benefited from a fortunate penalty award to smash home the opener from the spot inside the opening quarter of an hour. Jurgen Damm and Javier Aquino combined to produce Aquino's stunning second on the half-hour. Rafael Sobis completed the rout with a simple tap-in for the third goal on the hour.
The margin of victory reflected Tigres' superiority on the night. Ricardo Ferretti's side established its usual terms in possession and unsettled Pumas from the opening whistle. Aquino and Damm attracted most of the attention for their marauding raids in the wide areas, but they were part of a complete team performance. This expensively assembled side saved its best for this significant stage and yielded the significant dividends.
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Pumas must produce a performance for the ages to stop Tigres' procession to the title at Estadio Olimpico Universitario on Sunday. The past two performances -- the ugly defeat to Club América on Sunday and this submission in San Nicolas de los Garza -- provide little reason to expect a revival act. More likely than not, Tigres' first Liga MX title since 2011 looms as the inevitable outcome in Mexico City instead.
Tigres entered this night as heavy favorites and showed why by establishing dominion in the early stages. There were no surprises in store at Estadio Universitario with Tigres seeking possession and Pumas trying to hit on the break. The home side grasped the initiative from the outset, while Pumas struggled mightily to keep its shape with Tigres scurrying around with intent.
Worrying signs emerged for the visitors in short order as Aquino and Damm consistently caused problems in the wide areas. Their constant menace -- fueled by Tigres' superiority in possession and its willingness to interchange off the ball -- eventually paved the way for the opening goal after 15 minutes.
There were few signs of the peril to follow after Damm hit a deep cross toward the back post. Sobis collected a header back toward his feet and then waited for Cortés to barge him in the back. It provided just enough of a jolt for Sobis to collapse to the group and tempt the referee to point to the spot.
Pumas' wholly justified protests yielded precious little solace. Gignac assumed the duties from the spot -- Juninho lost his usual place after missing in the semifinal victory over Toluca -- and dispatched them with a thunderous penalty into the roof of the net. The venomous drive doled out a harsh punishment, even if Pumas were second best in the early stages.
Matias Britos nearly flicked home Cortés free kick to produce an immediate response, but his header sailed over the bar. It proved a rare interlude for Pumas in the first half with Tigres dictating the cadence of the game and interrupting the service toward the stranded Eduardo Herrera.
Those measures allowed Tigres to torment Pumas on the ball. Guido Pizarro marshaled the proceedings as usual in the center of the park with Duenas also playing his part by drifting wide to support others on the ball. The constant lines of inquiry left Pumas scrambling in defense and eventually produced the second goal just before the half-hour.
Both wingers played prominent roles. Duenas floated out to the right and played Damm behind the overwhelmed Marcelo Alatorre. Damm pushed toward the end line with intent and swung his resulting cross toward the unmarked Aquino at the back post. Aquino collected in acres of space, took a touch and thrashed into the far corner to double Tigres' advantage.
The second goal prompted Pumas to push forward more and scrap for some sort of foothold in the game. Those moments arrived for a fleeting few minutes at the start of the second half, but they merely underscored the danger created when Tigres located time and space on the break. Pumas offered little hope of any sort of revival and eventually shipped a third goal through their own frailty on the hour.
From the moment the ball floated toward Sobis, Pumas looked in trouble. Gerardo Alcoba climbed over the top of Sobis to win the initial header, but he steered it straight toward Gignac near the penalty spot. Gignac bounced his effort off the turf. Alejandro Palacios did well to parry away the skipping shot, but he pushed the rebound straight into Sobis' path. The simple finish left Sobis and Gignac to celebrate and reinforced the gulf between the teams.
There were opportunities in the waning stages to extend that advantage. Palacios produced a fine block in the final 10 minutes as his Pumas teammates tired noticeably around him. The save offered a hint of how Pumas reached this stage in the first place, but it mattered little in the final accounting. Tigres completed this night with a deserved win and one hand on the trophy. The celebrations at the final whistle supplied a hint of the exultation ahead once the task is inevitably completed in Mexico City on Sunday.