Liga MX finals: Resilient Pumas 'playing with house money' against favorites Leon

MEXICO CITY -- Pumas UNAM legend Hugo Sanchez celebrated his former team's passage to the Liga MX final so loudly that he believes he woke up his neighbors at his Madrid apartment.

Who could blame him? Overturning a four-goal first-leg deficit to Cruz Azul on Sunday night and earning a 4-0 win at Estadio Olimpico Universitario was something of a miracle. Pumas had less than a 1% chance of going through ahead of kick-off, according to FiveThirtyEight.

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Even before that epic turnaround on Sunday night, Pumas' path to the final had already been anything but ordinary. This was a team that was left without a coach on the eve of the Guard1anes season, after "Michel" Gonzalez unexpectedly exited. The club's youth system director Andres Lillini subsequently stepped in and somehow Pumas went through the regular season with only one defeat.

The mentality shown in the victory over Cruz Azul highlighted exactly why second-seed Pumas will be a tough proposition for top-seeded Leon in the Liga MX final.

"We are not beaten, we don't know what that is," Pumas' 20-year-old midfielder Erik Lira had said ahead of the second leg. "We are focused on winning and that's what we'll do, we want to erase the [losing] image and we want to do it for the people on the outside, for our families and loved ones."

When the final first leg rolls around on Thursday, the university team from Mexico City will be the underdogs once again, but that's nothing new of late even for a club considered among Mexico's "Big Four."

Heading into the season, expectations were relatively low, with most predictions projecting Pumas to finish around mid-table. And even after the club's strong regular season, there were few pundits backing Pumas against Mexico City rival Cruz Azul in the semifinal. But the players have come together. You can see it on the field in the goal celebrations, the barbecues at the club's training complex posted on social media, and in Lira's belief that overcoming Cruz Azul was possible even at 4-0 down.

"I think something that is really important is that we became strong, we united as a group and we knew that it was us players who had to close ranks and believe in ourselves," explained Juan Pablo Vigon, the scorer of the decisive goal against Cruz Azul, in an interview with ESPN. "[Coach Andres] Lillini did an amazing job with us, his power of conviction and confidence gave us a boost."

Pumas fans talk and demand "garra" -- literally "claw" but loosely meaning drive or "putting in a shift" -- as a minimum requisite for wearing the shirt and that's exactly what they've got this season, even without the fans inside Liga MX stadiums.

Lillini's team isn't one of the best in Liga MX in terms of individual talents -- Pumas have the 12th-most expensive squad in the league, according to Transfermarkt -- but the Argentine coach has built on Michel's work and crafted an intense, driven team that is awkward to play against and very difficult to defeat. Pumas play a 4-4-2, try to get the ball quickly to strikers Juan Dinenno and Carlos Gonzalez, who are both good in the air and sharp at sniffing out chances in and around the box.

Experienced goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera is arguably the signing of the past off-season and should be back from injury for the final. And if center-back duo Johan Vasquez and Nico Freire can replicate anywhere near the standard they showed in that second leg against Cruz Azul, Leon is going to be in for a tough series.

This is a well-coached, compact Pumas team, but there's a reason seven-time champions Leon are going into the final as the favorite and it's not entirely down to Pumas. The truth is that La Fiera would've been favored against any other team in Liga MX.

"Nacho" Ambriz's side have simply been captivating for the last two years, playing possession-based, attacking football, and topping pretty much every positive stat you could think of in Liga MX in 2020: Leon has the most goals scored per game (1.77), highest possession per game (60%), most wins (21 from 31 games) and fewest defeats (four).

Leon midfielder Luis Montes has been the league's best player this year and stopping him from getting time on the ball and influencing the game will be of prime concern for Pumas, whose only defeat in the regular season was a 2-0 loss to Leon. Then there is Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell, who has been inconsistent in general, but hit form in the semifinal against Chivas.

Leon were more pragmatic and mature than explosive and entertaining against Chivas in the semifinal, but Ambriz's side got the job done, and may be able to add left-back Yairo Moreno, who is available after injury, and right-back David Ramirez, who tested positive for COVID-19.

Pumas, going for their eighth title and first since 2011, should push Leon closer than Chivas and make this a closely-contested series. There's no doubt the team from Guanajuato needs a title to cap this positive period. And because of that, there is possibly added pressure. Pumas, meanwhile, are almost playing with house money given the low expectations ahead of the season and the heroics against Cruz Azul.

Whoever wins, we should be in for a grandstand final.