Mexico's Toluca and America played out a scoreless draw last night in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions Cup final after a scrappy affair that lacked both rhythm and chances.
As often happens on the big occasions, the pressure took its toll, with neither side showing their usual conviction. The tackling was intense and the commitment as wholehearted as ever, but it was an usually quiet night for the keepers at both ends.
A difficult return
Both clubs were able to call on full strength sides as they went in search of a crucial first-leg advantage. One of the night's big attractions was the return of America's star striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who had vowed to show national team coach Ricardo La Volpe what he was missing after being overlooked for a berth in Mexico's provisional squad for Germany.
For all of that, the America No.10 struggled to find his form on an evening when his trademark change of pace was largely nullified by ferociously tight marking from the home defence. It was perhaps because of this that Toluca were able to dictate proceedings early on. With Uruguayan Vicente Sanchez leading the attack, the Red Devils made a beeline for Armando Navarrete's goal, but early efforts from Amaury Ponce and Sanchez himself failed to unduly trouble the America keeper.
In spite of the two early chances, the game settled into a languid pace. Then, in the space of just two minutes, both sides had probably their best scoring opportunities of the entire evening. First, the Eagles' Brazilian striker Kleber Boas found himself in a great position but failed to put the finishing touches to an excellent ball from Blanco. Then, from the ensuing counter attack, the Argentine Rodrigo Diaz almost put the locals ahead but smashed his shot against the crossbar after a neat one-two with Sanchez.
With the game having sprung to life, America thought they had taken the lead on 22 minutes, only for referee Marco Rodriguez to penalise Ismael Rodriguez for bringing the ball down with his hand in the build up to the goal. Toluca, for their part, responded by laying siege to the Eagles' area but struggled to find the space to carve out openings.
After these early exchanges, there was not a single chance of note for the remainder of the first half, as both sides tried in vain to extricate themselves from an overcrowded midfield.
Toluca push up, America rely on the counter
The second period began in a similar vein to the first with Toluca showing the greater conviction going forward. Once again, Amaury Ponce tried his luck with a shot from medium range, but Navarrete did very well to push out for a corner. Moments later, it was the turn of Toluca's Hernan Cristante to show his shot-stopping skills, denying first Kleber and then Cristian Gimenez.
Desperate to make the most of home advantage, the Red Devils threw men forward, a tactic that played into the hands of the counter-attacking visitors. On 72 minutes, the ubiquitous Brazilian Kleber worked himself an opening, only to see his shot well saved by the vigilant Cristante.
The miss seemed to take the wind out of the Toluca sails, and the game again descended into a scrappy battle in midfield. However, there was still time for Claudio López to almost steal victory for America, but the Argentine player blazed his effort over the Red Devils' crossbar.
And that was pretty much that. The scoreless draw hands the advantage to America, who will be looking to make full use of home advantage next week at the Azteca Stadium to claim another continental title and book their places at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this December.