In a surprisingly quiet start to the team’s playoff run, Tijuana crawled to a 1-0 loss against Morelia on Thursday night.
Despite the fact that Xolos manager Miguel “Piojo” Herrera initially stressed the importance of an away goal, the head coach appeared unexpectedly at ease with a narrow defeat.
Through eyebrow-raising substitutions and tactical decisions, Herrera set Tijuana up to be conservative with its possession after allowing a goal in the 10th minute. Xolos were rarely a threat to Morelia’s backline, and other than a few dangerous moments, there was little worth noting from the attack.
Now, with a small deficit in hand, Tijuana must gain a victory at home this Sunday in order to move on to the semifinals.
Here are three Xolos talking points from the loss.
1. Morelia might be without Ruidiaz
Although Tijuana couldn’t earn a win, some Xolos fans might still feel confident after the knock to Morelia striker Raul Ruidiaz.
During the first half, Ruidiaz suffered an injury to his knee which forced him to be substituted out in the 38th minute. Without the Peruvian on the field, Morelia failed to sneak more than one goal past Tijuana’s Gibran Lajud.
At time of writing there is no official statement regarding the severity of the striker’s injury, but with a quick turnaround time before the second leg, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him miss the upcoming game.
The potential absence of Ruidiaz would be massive for Morelia. The 26-year-old is the best player on his roster and the league’s leading goalscorer.
Will he be match-fit for Sunday?
2. Tijuana dealt with strange tactics from Herrera
Morelia did a fantastic job of frustrating Xolos’ attack in the first half. Following the early lone goal, Los Canarios gave little space to Tijuana and immediately shutdown much of the attacking movement.
Herrera responded with a more proactive start after halftime, but then gradually made some odd changes.
Still chasing an equalizer, the manager brought off striker Milton Caraglio and substituted in Juan Carlos Nuñez in the 62nd minute. Through a backline of five, it became clear that Herrera was going for a more defensive approach in a match that he was trailing. On the pitch, a few players appeared lost after the changes and looked confused during set-pieces.
After a man-for-man change in the 72nd minute, Herrera then decided to throw more numbers forward by replacing midfielder Guido Rodriguez in the 77th minute for striker Juan Martin Lucero. This decision at first made sense because of Rodriguez’s yellow, but was also quite odd after attempting to absorb pressure from Morelia.
Although assistant coach Diego Ramirez later confirmed the intention to avoid a significant defeat, such as the one seen against Leon last year in the quarterfinals, there seemed to be no concise backup plan for Herrera.
3. No away-goal could be the deciding factor
The series is undoubtedly still up in the air. When you consider Xolos’ attacking options, and the possibility of a Ruidiaz absence for Morelia, Tijuana has a decent opportunity of gaining a convincing win this Sunday.
That said, the away-goal tiebreaker will loom large over the Estadio Caliente this weekend.
If Morelia scores once on Sunday, Xolos will need a minimum of three at home. Due to the fact that Tijuana couldn’t find the back of the net on Thursday evening, the squad will have to be well aware of the repercussions of just one stray chance for Morelia.
In spite of the conservative nature of Herrera’s gameplan in the first leg, it might prove to be a risky one…
Xolos’ best player on the pitch — Gibran Lajud
Was Lajud at fault for the only goal? Probably.
Morelia’s Miguel Sansores was given the official credit for scoring the early opportunity, but upon closer look through replays, it’s obvious that Lajud accidentally knocked the ball in while diving for it.
Not exactly man of the match material for the blunder, but after allowing the goal, the 23-year-old completely redeemed himself with vital stops and saves. Were it not for Lajud, Xolos could have easily walked away from the first leg with a 3-0 loss.
To pick himself up and provide that performance, especially after allowing the early goal, spoke volumes.