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Pumas’ problems run deep

Andrés Lillini’s self-destructing squad has somehow pulled away with points in its first three games, but better show improvement soon if they truly wish to keep their current head coach

Pumas UNAM v FC Juarez - Torneo Guard1anes 2020 Liga MX Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

It seemed improbable that this meeting at Ciudad Universitaria would live up to the entertainment these two sides provided in a wild 4-4 draw back in January. Yet, Sunday afternoon’s stalemate will prove just as memorable, albeit not for any end-to-end action. Instead, the focus falls squarely on the failings of Pumas to win a match that had been gift wrapped and left at their door.

A tough assignment against Gabriel Caballero’s organized and in-form outfit became straightforward within the first few minutes. Erick Castillo’s studs-up challenge on Jesús Rivas befitted a forward unaccustomed to last-ditch interventions. The subsequent red card was deserved, leaving the home team with a golden opportunity to extend their early season winning streak.

A victory would leave Pumas superlíder and strengthen interim manager Andrés Lillini’s candidacy for the permanent role. Even with the extra motivation, they were incapable of making their man advantage count. Attack after attack broke down at the edge of the Bravos box as the hosts tried to pick their way through a massed defense.

The lethargy going forward extended to the technical area. Even though the sending off left Juárez with only Brian Rubio up top, Lillini waited until halftime to bring on Juan Iturbe for one of his three center-backs. Nevertheless, it seemed like the coach’s dithering would not matter after visiting right-back Francisco Nevarez was given his marching orders shortly before the break. Surely Pumas would be able to open up their depleted rivals in the second stanza.

Incredibly, Los Universitarios were even worse in the second 45 minutes. They displayed a bizarre reticence to shoot from distance or hang crosses into the box for Juan Dinneno and Carlos González. As a result, the star striking tandem barely had a sniff at goal. A well-taken González spot-kick did put Pumas in the lead, but the penalty came thanks to the Paraguayan’s play-acting and poor refereeing from Oscar Macías Romo, rather than any inspired attacking interchanges.

Even with their failure to unsettle a dogged Bravos rearguard, Pumas were set to collect three points that they scarcely deserved. However, the lapses in concentration that make Los Universitarios so flimsy at the back have not been fixed under Lillini, and they condemned the hosts once again. The umpteenth unnecessary foul outside their box was finally punished by Maximiliano Olivera’s brilliant free kick.

Earlier this week, ESPN’s John Sutcliffe reported that Lillini’s future hinges on obtaining positive results during a quick-fire spate of three games that began on Sunday. A daunting trip to Monterrey is up next, with a loss likely to spell the end for the Argentinean’s brief time in charge. Former UNAM stalwarts Gonzalo Pineda and Bruno Marioni have been heavily linked to the job, with the Seattle Sounders assistant the rumored frontrunner.

Whoever is in charge after this week must undertake the difficult task of resolving this team’s propensity for self-destruction. Their insipid Sunday showing was reminiscent of the famous collapse against nine-man América back in August 2018. Like David Patiño, Marioni and Míchel before him, Lillini has tried and failed to eradicate a persistent penchant for calamity.

Pineda could well prove an inspired choice should he get the job. However, the club’s preference for coaches with “Pumas DNA” must be thrown into question. Hugo Sánchez delivered a glorious bicampeonato back in 2004, but fellow fan favorites Marioni and Paco Palencia disappointed in their recent spells on the sidelines. Bringing Pumas back up to a level commensurate with their history, despite a considerable economic disparity between them and the league’s heavyweights, is a massive task. The chosen candidate needs more than just a glittering playing career with Los del Pedregal on his resume.