Andre-Pierre Gignac's Tigres double keeps Clausura clash on knife-edge
NUEVO LEON, Mexico -- Three quick thoughts from Tigres 2-2 Chivas in Liga MX on Thursday.
Tigres striker Andre-Pierre Gignac scored two goals in the final six minutes of Thursday's 2017 Clausura first leg to leave the tie against Chivas all square at 2-2 heading into Sunday's decisive return match.
Alan Pulido and Rodolfo Pizarro netted in the first half for Chivas, before Gignac salvaged the late draw for Tigres with a brace.
1. Gignac turns on late magic
For 84 minutes, veteran Chivas center-back Carlos Salcido had France striker Gignac in his pocket. Gignac was a passenger in the 2017 Clausura final and Chivas seemingly had the solution to everything Tigres could conjure up.
But Gignac is no ordinary player and he doesn't need much time or space to influence big matches. And that's exactly what he did on Thursday.
With Tigres 2-0 down and the final heavily tipped in Chivas' favor, Gignac found a yard of space away from center-back Oswaldo Alanis, received a Damian Alvarez left-wing cross and lashed a left-footed shot into the bottom corner of the goal.
And then, with the crowd in Estadio Universitario signing his name to the tune of The Beatles' "Hey Jude," the 31-year-old chased down a long ball, nicked it past onrushing keeper Rodolfo Cota and steered in a sumptuous finish from a tight angle to level the score.
With two goals in three minutes, the message for Chivas, as if coach Matias Almeyda didn't already know, is that playing this Tigres team requires almost robotic concentration.
The France star has now scored nine goals in six games this May. If Chivas are to lift the Liga MX trophy for the first time in over 10 years, they'd better hope they can stop Gignac for the full 90 on Sunday.
2. Chivas so close to a victory
Make no mistake, this was a performance for the ages from Chivas, at least for 84 minutes. The size of the task going into the game was monumental. This Tigres side is one of the best Liga MX has ever seen and had scored 18 goals and conceded just two over its last six games, all of which it had won. Chivas, on the other hand, have won just once in 11 games now. They advanced in the quarters and semis against Atlas and Toluca due to their higher finishing position in the regular-season standings.
But Almeyda's Chivas team clearly likes a challenge. There's huge pride in being an all-Mexican unit. Working hard isn't optional. Without doing so, you don't get into Almeyda's starting team.
That was the key feature in Chivas' performance. Sure, it was backed up by quality, but Chivas' ability to out-hustle Tigres and win personal battles all over the field handed the Guadalajara side what is a positive result. It knocked Tigres out of their stride for most the game.
It is difficult to think of a Chivas player who played badly, until Miguel Ponce came on in the 72nd minute. But perhaps those who stood out were central midfielders Michael Perez and Orbelin Pineda.
Perez's task was to stop the in-form and increasingly influential Jesus Duenas and keep an eye on Lucas Zelarayan in combination with center-midfielder Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez. The 24-year-old Chivas youth product did it like he was born into the role.
Pineda, playing further forward behind Pulido, was equally apt for the job of both stifling Tigres holding midfielder Guido Pizarro and attempting to cause danger when Chivas did get the ball. Of all of Mexico's young starlets, Pineda may just be the pick. The final was a test of his temperament and ability to go up against an Argentina international like Pizarro and he passed it with flying colors.
In a Liga MX season in which we've seen a record number of foreign players, this Chivas performance was also a reminder that teams can succeed with Mexicans, if they go about things the right way.
A league and cup double and a first title in over a decade is still on for Chivas, although Almeyda needs the players to be equally as good in the return leg, which is a big ask.
3. Pulido earns redemption in Estadio Universitario
Pulido's heart must have almost jumped out his chest when Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman punched the ball at defender Luis Advincula and it came toward him. Luckily, the striker's instincts took over and he steered the ball into the goal to silence Estadio Universitario.
It was the most important goal of 26-year-old Pulido's career. Not only was it the opener in a Liga MX final against his former club, but it came against an institution with whom he had been involved in a contractual battle for over two years. And over those years, Pulido had managed to play a total of 14 league games in Greece.
Chivas' huge investment in Pulido -- who is reportedly the club's record signing -- was made with these key moments in mind. Even if it was Pulido's first goal since April 9, his work rate and the way he tracked back has been exceptional.
On Sunday, it'll be one day short of a year since he was kidnapped and fans all over the world worried about his health. The Liga MX final has shown Pulido's career is very much now back on track.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.