Such is the parity in the leagues of Central America that the region’s championships regularly throw up their share of surprises and close finishes. The end of the 2010 Apertura season has proved no exception, with several title races producing some unforgettable finales.

A case in point was the Costa Rican Primera Division, where Alajuelense pipped Herediano to the crown in a penalty shootout. In Guatemala, Comunicaciones prevailed in similar fashion against arch-rivals Municipal, while Real Espana came out on top in Honduras thanks to an extra-time goal in the final against Olimpia. There was also a photo-finish in El Salvador, with Metapan holding their nerve in another spot-kick decider against old foes Alianza. looks into all these thrilling denouements.

Deserving champions
Although Alajuelense were the outstanding team of the regular season in Costa Rica, the championship play-off system used throughout Central America can sometimes leave such consistency unrewarded. Happily for La Liga, however, they maintained their form through to the end, eventually seeing off Herediano in a nailbiting two-legged final.

Drawing 0-0 in the first leg, the two sides met again at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in what turned out to be a thriller. Taking the lead through Victor Nunez, Herediano were seemingly poised to end their 17-year title wait when Argentinian midfielder Pablo Gabas silenced their celebrating fans by slotting home a last-minute equaliser for Alajuelense.

After extra time came and went without any further goals, the two sides stepped forward for the dreaded penalty shootout, with Alajuelense holding their nerve to win 4-3 and chalk up a 25th championship triumph.

There was an equally dramatic conclusion further north in Honduras. In the latest chapter in the long-running rivalry between the country’s two hotbeds of San Pedro Sula and the capital Tegucigalpa, Real Espana and Olimpia served up another nailbiting tie. Locked at 1-1 after the first leg, the final swung Los Olimpistas’ way with 20 minutes remaining, when Ramiro Bruschi gave them a 2-1 aggregate lead.

Youngster Christian Martinez had other ideas, however, and levelled the scores two minutes from time. Hampered by two red cards in extra time, Olimpia were powerless to prevent Douglas Caetano from netting Real’s winner, securing them their tenth league title.

Familiar faces
There was no shortage of excitement in Guatemala either, although it was hardly a surprise to see usual suspects Comunicaciones and Municipal contest the final yet again. After drawing 1-1 in their first meeting, the two old rivals played out a 2-2 draw in a gripping second leg, with veteran Rolando Fonseca hitting a late equaliser for Comunicaciones.

Bolstered by their reprieve, Los Albos then made it championship number 25 in a nerve-racking penalty decider featuring no fewer than 14 spot-kicks. The hero of the hour for Comunicaciones was goalkeeper Juan Jose Paredes, who stopped four penalties in all.

The only team in Central America’s top four leagues to retain their title was Isidro Metapan of El Salvador, although not without another almighty struggle. Held to a goalless draw by Alianza, Los Caleros had to win what was their fifth championship in three years the hard way, from the penalty spot. The honour of striking the decisive goal to secure a 4-3 shootout victory fell to midfielder Emerson Umana.

In Panama the two biggest teams, Tauro and San Francisco, went head-to-head in a keenly contested final that Los Taurinos edged to win their tenth league title. And finally, in Nicaragua the Primera Division honours went to Real Esteli.