Approximately 22,500 fans packed into the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium on Wednesday for a night of high drama as Deportivo Saprissa drew 1-1 with Pachuca of Mexico in an enthralling first leg of the final of the 2008 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup.
The result means that the second leg, which will be held April 30 at the Hidalgo Stadium in Pachuca, Mexico, will be a winner- takes-all encounter, with a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup later this year at stake.
The home side started brightly and could have gone ahead within the first 30 seconds when Ronald Gómez found space in the penalty area following good work down the left hand side, but the striker dragged his shot wide.
However, having put aside that early scare, Pachuca quickly settled into the game despite the intimidating noise generated by the home fans. The Mexicans looked composed and were not afraid to pass the ball around, yet they failed to create many clearcut chances and rarely tested Keilor Navas in the Saprissa goal.
“El Monstruo,” by contrast, looked more committed but slightly less controlled than their opponents. However, they were creating more opportunities and were unlucky not to take the lead just before halftime when Armando Alonso’s header hit the woodwork with Pachuca goalkeeper Miguel Angel Calero well beaten.
With the tie at 0-0 at halftime, Saprissa needed to maintain their focus and intensity in the second period. The home fans were stunned, therefore, when, less than two minutes after the restart, a Saprissa attack broke down leaving them short of numbers at the back. Pachuca countered quickly and Luis Gabriel Rey split the defense on the edge of the area to fire home from 15 yards.
Stung by the goal, “Los Morados” redoubled their efforts and continued to pile forward. However, perhaps short on confidence after their recent run of four consecutive defeats in domestic competition, Saprissa lacked patience, frequently giving the ball away to the organized Mexican defense as they looked to force an equalizer.
Their determination eventually paid off, however, as the appropriately scrappy equalizer finally came with a minute left of normal time. The ball broke lose in the penalty area as Saprissa attacked and, in the ensuing goalmouth scramble, captain Víctor Cordero reacted fastest to toe-poke the ball past Calero and send the “cave,” as the Saprissa stadium is known, into raptures.
With just injury time remaining, the home team went searching for an unlikely winner in a frantic final few minutes, but it was not to be.
After the game, both managers were feeling bittersweet.
“I am pleased, if not entirely by the result then certainly by the performance of my team,” said visiting coach Enrique Meza.
Saprissa coach Jeaustin Campos was similarly philosophical. “I think we needed to be more confident on the ball… We lacked composure in the final third. It is not quite the result we wanted, but everything is still to play for.”
Saprissa, who will be gunning for their fourth CONCACAF title, do at least have history on their side. The last time these two sides met at the quarterfinal stage in 2004, the Costa Rican side claimed victory in Mexico in a penalty shoot-out. Reigning champions Pachuca however, will prove formidable opposition at home and, with so little to choose between the sides, no one is betting against this tie also being decided on spot-kicks.