Ten-man Saprissa hang tough to book Tokyo ticket
Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa booked passage to the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup in Japan with a 3-2 aggregate win over Pumas UNAM despite losing out 1-2 on 11 May at the Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City. With a 2-0 lead from the first leg last week in San Jose, Saprissa were in fine form on the road as they battled on with ten men for a touch-and-go final quarter-hour.
Knowing they needed goals, the home side pushed into attack early. But it was more a whimper than a roar from Pumas, without suspended Argentine ace Bruno Marioni. Saprissa, for their part, were keen to play compact at the back, soak up pressure and hit out on the odd counterattack.
Pumas' Brazilian sparkplug Ailton had a penalty shout waved away in minute 20. But with the exception of a handful of casual half-chances, the home side were unable to unlock a supremely disciplined Saprissa rearguard. A vicious strike in the 27th minute from sumptuous Brazilian playmaker Leandro Augosto proved the Mexicans' best chance of the first period. But thankfully for last year's beaten finalists, Saprissa, the strike sailed over the bar.
Under heavy pressure, the Costa Ricans breathed a big sigh of relief when they snuck what would turn out to be the crucial goal against the run of play in minute 33. Burly striker Ronald Gomez - back in the starting eleven after missing the first leg with an injury - got on the end of a sly diagonal ball from Alonso Solis to hammer off the underside of Sergio Bernal's crossbar and increase Saprissa's aggregate lead to 3-0. It was the visitors' first shot of the contest and the Korea/Japan 2002 veteran made no mistake with a cool finish to cap off a lightning-quick counter.
Without inspirational centre back and captain Joaquin Beltran, the Pumas defence was visibly weakened. And Solis so nearly made it 2-0 five minutes before the interval, but his close-range volley fell tamely into the arms of a grateful Bernal.
Twice-defending Mexican champions Pumas, eliminated uncharacteristically early from the 2005 Clausura campaign, came out in the second half intent on making a game of it. But unlike MLS side DC United - who UNAM managed to hammer 5-0 in their semi-final second leg at home - Saprissa were not going to be so easily undone.
Despite pre-match worries about the altitude and home-field edge, the confident Costa Ricans continued to boss the affair. Gomez nearly grabbed his second on the night when his shot from distance forced Bernal into a fine save in minute 48.
As Saprissa continued to pour on the pressure, Pumas' frustration mounted. Animated coach Hugo Sanchez kept on shouting appeals from the touchline, but his side had little more to offer in a scrappy, ill-tempered second period.
A rare defensive blunder by Saprissa allowed substitute Joaquin Del Olmo a goal in minute 66. And after substitute Allan Aleman was sent off just moments after coming on in minute 74, the home side smelled blood in the water.
Augosto struck another for Pumas in the 93rd minute to win the night 2-1. But it was a false dawn as Saprissa deservedly took the laurels on aggregate after an edgy six minutes of stoppage time.
The win is Saprissa's third CONCACAF Champions Cup title (they won in 1993 and 1995), and Hernan Medford's side will now become the first non-Mexican team to represent CONCACAF at a FIFA Club World Championship after beating two Mexican sides (Monterrey and Pumas) along the way. Alajuelense won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2004, making Saprissa the region's second consecutive Tico champion.
Saprissa will join five other champions from Planet Football's six geographic regions at the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup to be held in Japan from 11-18 December.