Leon's hopes for another Liga MX title will depend on Angel Mena. Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images
Can Leon make a case for themselves as the strongest Liga MX team in recent years? They qualified for the 2019 Clausura final, lifted the 2020 Apertura trophy, won the 2021 Leagues Cup championship, and now, they're back in the final for the current 2021 Apertura season against surprise side Atlas.
It has been an astonishing run for Leon, and with new manager Ariel Holan in his first tournament with the team, it's even more impressive to note that another trophy could be added in the near future during this week's final.
Ahead of the first leg on Thursday at home (Dec. 9th at 10:00pm ET) and the second leg in Guadalajara (Dec. 12th at 9:15pm ET), let's analyze Leon's chances.
Leon's Path To The Final
The pattern has been similar in the quarterfinal and semifinal stage: Stumbling at first before ultimately mounting a comeback.
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In the quarters against Puebla, Leon bounced back from a 2-1 away loss in the first leg with a 2-0 win at home in the second. Thanks to a brace from Angel Mena, the 3-2 aggregate scoreline was enough for a place in the semis.
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Once there, Leon suffered another 2-1 away loss, this time in dramatic fashion with two goals from Tigres UANL in the final minutes of the semifinal first leg. In the second leg, it was Mena who rescued them another time with another brace in a 2-1 win at home.
Still transitioning into Holan's system, Leon are a work in progress, albeit a dangerous one. The manager has needed to tinker with his frontline/wingers and it has paid off with their place in the final. Getting a chance to fine-tune his tactics at home in the second leg has also proven to be beneficial for Holan.
Nonetheless, as the No. 3 seed, they'll have to finish this week's final outside of Leon. With Atlas walking in as the No. 2 seed, the second leg will be played in Guadalajara this Sunday.
Leon's Key Players
Once criticized for his absence in big games, Mena is now the undisputed catalyst in Leon's attack. The Ecuadorian has four goals and an assist in his last three playoff games for Los Panzas Verdes. Blessed with agility and quick dribbling, he'll be sure to have his hand in at least one more goal this week.
In the backline, William Tesillo is one of the top defensive players in Liga MX. Whether it be as a central defender or a fullback, the Colombian 31-year-old is capable of intercepting the ball and helping with the build-up of plays going forward.
Victor Davila is also a potential game-changer for Leon. Up top in their latest 2-0 win last weekend, the 24-year-old Chilean was a headache for Tigres' backline and immediately made an impact with his runs and distribution in the first half. If Holan wants his frontline to be more mobile, going with a Mena-Davila partnership might be a good bet.
William Tesillo didn't exactly contain Andre-Pierre Gignac but Leon did enough to keep Tigres at bay. MIGUEL SIERRA/EPA-EFE/
How They Can Win The Championship
Finding the right balance in the attack can win it all for Leon. While the midfield and most of the defense seems set in Holan's formation, the big question is who will start up top.
Depending on how things develop in both legs, Holan might be tempted to stick with Davila and Mena as the front two to give more speed to the attack. Off the bench, Santiago Ormeno or Emanuel Gigliotti could then be utilized as more traditional strikers to close out games.
Defensively, they'll have to be cautious with Atlas' approach that can focus on the flanks. Tracking back to mark Atlas wing-backs, along with moving the ball quickly through high pressure, could do plenty to help alleviate any issues in Leon's own half of the field.
How They Can Lose The Championship
Defense will be an issue for Leon.
Barring a last-minute appeal against his red card, starting left-back Osvaldo Rodriguez will be unavailable for the first leg on Thursday. Tesillo could be brought in his place, but that would then weaken the middle of the backline. Jose David "Avion" Ramirez is another option, although he isn't as defensively reliable as Tesillo or Rodriguez.
As seen in the semis, Atlas were able to pounce on Pumas in the second leg after they made some defensive changes. Without their usual chemistry, nearly every mistimed pass was caught by Atlas' pressuring attackers.
If Leon lose the final series this week, it might start with a lack of chemistry or an unexpected defensive hiccup when needing to alter things at home in the first leg.