After one of the most tumultuous weeks in the club’s recent history, Pumas entered this match consumed by uncertainty. Míchel’s sudden departure left interim head coach Andrés Lillini to take charge of his first Liga MX match. The COVID-19 lockdown had exacerbated UNAM’s delicate financial situation, leaving them unable to strengthen a squad that lacks the quality of the division’s heavyweights. Amidst all the issues, Los Auriazules will rejoice the continuation of what has become a happy trend in recent years: an opening day victory.
Saturday’s triumph marked the sixth time in seven seasons that Pumas won their first match of the campaign. They have become accustomed to starting off strong only to slide down the table as the season progresses. Based on the evidence of this eventful 3-2 defeat of Querétaro, their participation in the Torneo Guard1anes 2020 is likely to follow a similar arc.
Before the surprise exit of their former Spanish coach, the signing of veteran goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera was the major offseason story for Pumas. The Mexican international came in to replace Alfredo Saldívar, whose propensity for high-profile errors had proven costly on multiple occasions. “Tala” demonstrated his worth in a tepid first half, exhibiting feline reflexes to parry a close-range effort from Ángel Sepúlveda that would have opened the scoring shortly before the break. Just minutes later, Juan Dinenno popped up to put the home side ahead after some lax set piece defending from Gallos.
Pumas had done little to deserve their lead, but seemed set to put the match to bed after visiting defender Alfonso Luna was sent off in the 57th minute for a gruesome kick to the face of center back Nicolás Freire. Yet, the remainder of the contest showed that UNAM’s propensity for self-destruction did not disappear with the departure of Saldívar.
First, a comical Freire own goal brought Querétaro level. Even after substitute Juan Iturbe provoked the 2-1 with his first involvement, Pumas still found a way to let Gallos back into the match. The normally assured Talavera was the culprit this time, letting in a deflected Sepúlveda free kick at the near post after his poorly organized wall had parted like the Red Sea.
Freire and Talavera will be thankful to Dinenno, who displayed his killer instinct yet again with a sharp finish that gave Pumas a definitive 3-2 advantage. With the former Deportivo Cali striker and Carlos González up top, Los Auriazules will always threaten going forward. However, they are just as likely to concede at the other end. The new repechaje system means that Pumas are unlikely to miss out on the liguilla, but they cannot expect to advance very far in the playoffs with such a flimsy backline.
With Lillini only a stopgap on the touchline, a host of names have been mentioned as possible candidates to take over on a permanent basis. Jorge Campos and Hugo Sánchez are club legends, while Ricardo La Volpe has a sterling reputation for developing academy products, a crucial element of the Pumas philosophy.
Nevertheless, the best choice for the job is Víctor Manuel Vucetich. “El Rey Midas” is the most experienced of the four main options and proved at Querétaro that he can turn a subpar squad into a solid defensive unit capable of giving more talented teams problems. Although he wouldn’t be as popular a choice with the fans as Campos or Sánchez, Sporting Director Jesús Ramírez would be wise to hire Vucetich to take the Mexico City giants forward.