Sparkling Saprissa stun Pumas in San Jose
Deportivo Saprissa took the advantage in the 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup final series with a scintillating 2-0 result in the first leg over Mexico's UNAM Pumas on 4 May in San Jose. First half goals from Cristian Bolanos and Gabriel Badilla capped a magnificent performance for Hernan Medford's squad in their second consecutive continental final.
The contest - played before a vociferous and excitable capacity crowd at the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium - got off to a stuttering start with a tangible sense of trepidation in both camps. Pumas' well-travelled and high-profile Argentine striker Bruno Marioni nearly steered his snapped header in with only three minutes gone, but Jose Francisco Porras was equal to the task.
Seven minutes later, Alonso Solis forced Pumas keeper Sergio Bernal into an uncomfortable save with a tricky free kick.
With the backing of the extraordinarily vocal crowd, the hosts soon began to calm down and find their rhythm. The sumptuous dribbling of Solis began to combine with the cool coordination and team play that prompted Pumas' boss Hugo Sanchez to call Saprissa "more of a European side than a Central American one" before the match. And it wasn't long before the purple-clad Ticos gave the fans something to shout about.
On the end of a fine move that saw the hosts surge from defence to attack in a flash with a series of skilful flicked passes, Tray Benneth's final touch picked out Cristian Bolanos racing into the box. Sacrificing his body in the process, the midfielder stretched to toe-poke past a hapless Bernal and just inside the far post with 21 minutes gone.
Without suspended Walter Centeno and injured Ronald Gomez, there were pre-match concerns in Costa Rica over whether the home side would have any attacking bite. But brilliant collective approach work and some cool finishing from unlikely sources had the home-boys looking nothing short of inspired. With just four minutes to go before the break, fullback Gabriel Badilla drove his header off the underside of the crossbar from an inch-perfect Solis corner to double the lead at the interval.
Saprissa came out of the locker-room looking to add to their lead in the second half, knowing full well the second-leg at altitude in Mexico City could well be an entirely different kind of contest. But it was UNAM that came closest first, when - in minute 65 - Porras had to be at attention and full stretch to deny Gerardo Galindo's rifle-like free kick.
As Hugo Sanchez stood nervously at the edge of his technical area, he could only watch as frustration began to take a toll on his team's performance. Joaquin Beltran's 71st minute yellow card was Pumas' fifth on the night. As Medford's occasionally scintillating 'Monstruo Morado' ('Purple Monster') continued to hunt a third, chances for the Mexican side were few and far between.
Bolanos went steaming through in minute 77, and was only barely beaten to the final touch by a busy Bernal. In the dying moments Gerold Drummond had two chances to increase the lead, but his overhead kick and seemingly simple tap-in both went begging.
Marioni nearly slammed home an acrobatic volley of his own in minute 89 as Pumas attempted to steal one at the death. But no more goals were to be had as Saprissa - the better team on the night - took a well-deserved victory.
The Costa Ricans will bring their 2-0 lead to the Estadio Universitario Olimpico in Mexico City on 11 May. In the previous round UNAM followed up their disappointing 1-1 first leg result on the road against DC United with a 5-0 thumping at their imposing home ground.
But with Gomez and Centeno back in the team, Pumas could well be facing an even more potent Saprissa - a daunting proposition for a side currently struggling profoundly in the Mexican domestic league and banking on the Champions Cup as their only realistic hope for silverware in 2005.
Pumas won the CONCACAF Champions Cup three times in the 1980s, while Saprissa - losing finalists from last year - took the laurels in 1993 and 1995.
The aggregate winner of the final series (with away goals counting no more than those scored at home) will book passage as lone CONCACAF representatives at the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup to be held in Japan from 11-18 December.