On a night filled with endless chances to either tie the game or take a lead, América let the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions Cup series slip through their fingers in Nicaragua last night, coming up short to Real Estelí by 2-1. It was Byron Bonilla (player of the match) and Marvin Fletes instead who made good on their attempts and led their club to victory.
Let’s be honest here. The Nicaraguan side made a valiant effort and played their hearts out. They had a couple players come off who were just gassed from all the running throughout the game. But América should’ve scored about 5 goals and returned home with a lead similar to that of Rayados. That’s the caliber of chances they had during the 90 minutes, but simply failed to convert on any of them.
América were again without both Henry Martín (who they missed enormously) and Kevin Álvarez due to their respective injuries. It was a shocking start for Jardine and company when Byron Bonilla’s cross hit the outstretched arm of Emilio Lara (who incorrectly claimed his arm was glued to his body), and Bonilla himself converted the PK ‘Panenka’ style in just the 7th minute of action.
What followed were 40 minutes of bad decision making / misses on the part of both Julián Quiñones and Illian Hernández. Brian Rodríguez and Alejandro Zendejas grew tired of sending in cross after cross only to see another clear opportunity go to waste. And all the while Real Estelí sat back and defended, barely having possession of the ball at all across midfield for the rest of the half.
The home side struck again with another goal right out of the gate to start the second half as well when Marvin Fletes rose to meet the ball on a corner kick cross that he sent to the far post, well out of Malagón’s reach. A 2-0 scoreline with the second half just under way was definitely not in any of the cards Jardine had drawn up for this stage of the game. And it got worse.
Five minutes later, Bonilla drove the ball to the byline inside the box and crossed it to the far post to a wide open Maturana who slid and impacted on goal, but Malagón was there to deflect it out for a corner. It could’ve been 3-0 at this point. América were clearly stunned with the game situation, but from this point on, they recovered.
The Mexican side continued to dominate ball possession and all opportunities from there on out, but failed to convert. This in spite of Jardine bringing in the big guns in Álvaro Fidalgo, Diego Valdés, and ‘Cabecita’ Rodríguez. He even brought in Salvador Reyes to get more depth on that left side and someone who could continue to threaten on that flank as Brian Rodríguez (who had done a stellar job to that point) was moved to the right side. Not even that was able to help them break through,
Finally, in the 90th minute, Valdés’s free kick took a deflection off Marlon López and forced Douglas Forvis to readjust already on the move and ended up punching the ball straight forward to where three América players were colliding on it. Quiñones just happened to be the lucky one who pushed it in for the 2-1. That goal could prove to be huge (being an away goal) if we have a tight one next Wednesday at the Estadio Ciudad de los Deportes.
I’m really not bothered at all by the final result. Jardine has to be content with the fact his team never stopped creating chances and finished with 18 total shots, despite just 5 on target. But their 69% possession and overall cohesiveness were very solid overall and this was just a matter of them failing to convert. They should have no issue putting the series away in the second leg, unless their finishing woes continue.
Besides Illian Hernández having a forgettable match, the other negative for the Coapa side was Julián Quiñones who simply could not get going. He seemed uncomfortable the entire match and couldn’t impact the ball correctly. His bad decision-making also sticks out, as he tried to recross a couple crosses instead of attempting to score. Just overall an ugly performance from the Colombian. Some of that is on him, but another part is on the pitch. It’s so tough for players who are used to playing on grass fields to suddenly come play a high stakes match on turf. CONCACAF and FIFA for that matter should prohibit the use of turf pitches. It should be a requirement for all clubs to have a well-conditioned grass pitch.
Having said all of that, América should be moving on to the Round of 16 if logic prevails in Mexico City next week. But for the time being, manager Otoniel Olivas and all of Real Estelí nation should enjoy this victory as they managed to take down the current Liga MX champs. That is no small task. Yet, still 90 minutes to go.