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Rusty Montreal Predictably Come Up Short

Oh! for a level playing field... ‘too early’ CCL opener puts continental progress in jeopardy.

Santos Laguna v Montreal - CONCACAF Champions League 2022
Mihailovic lets fly as Ismael Govea closes in during Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg match in Torreon, northern Mexico.
Photo by Jos Alvarez/Jam Media/Getty Images

CF Montreal have a mountain to climb if they are to progress in the 2022 Champions League.

In a competition where, unlike Europe, away goals still count double, substitute Jesús Ocejo’s late headed winner for Santos on Tuesday could prove crucial.

Montreal must now win 1-0 next week at Stade Olympique to take the tie to extra time and potentially penalties, or win by a 2-goal margin to advance.

Wilfried Nancy is correct to declare Tuesday night’s outcome as ‘not a catastrophy’, but it is a blow and one which makes his side’s survival in this competition rather tricky at best.

Should the Mexicans score just once at the Big ‘O’, Montreal would need three. Neither condition is beyond the realms of possibility and with ten shut-outs behind CFM last season at either Quebec or Florida home bases, it’s not unreasonable either, to think this struggling LigaMX opposition can be blanked.

It promises to be a cagey affair and Nancy will be hoping to have available those who couldn’t make it to Torreon: Sam Piette, Alistair Johnston, Bjorn Johnsen and Sunusi Ibrahim.

Neither Mason Toye (how the manager would love to have him fit) nor Ahmed Hamdy, each longer-term casualties, will make it.

Santos Laguna v Montreal - CONCACAF Champions League 2022
Aguirre of Santos leaves Montreal’s Mihailovic grounded...
Photo by Jos Alvarez/Jam Media/Getty Images

Tuesday’s production was absolutely typical, predictable in fact. Almost like a repeat of previous 1st leg Champions League, seasonal-openers away from home.

In 2015 the Impact began brightly at Pachuca in central Mexico. They led by two Dilly Duka goals before running out of steam, eventually hanging on for a creditable and at times fortunate, 2-2 draw.

Similarly in 2020 after Okwonkwo and Quioto had provided a 2 goal cushion after only 22 mins in Costa Rica, Saprissa roared back, overran the Quebecers and canceled out the advantage in the last ten minutes, one of the two goals coming from former Impact man, Johan Venegas.

So to concede so late to Santos is nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps the surprising thing is Montreal didn’t register a goal earlier in the game. But then we’ve VAR to thank for that.

It was a perfectly reasonable application of the technology. What I’m not sure about though was the human interpretation, bearing in mind such an error (missing an alleged foul by Lappalainen) must be ‘clear and obvious’, the necessary enabler for overturning a decision.

Whether right or wrong it robbed Romell Quioto of a tremendously well-executed goal, in which he turned Ecuadorian centre-back Felix Torres inside out before producing a clinical finish.

But the bigger issue and one that must be addressed if CONCACAF Champions League is to continue growing and developing, has to be the competition’s timing. In its present form it clearly disadvantages US and Canadian clubs.

Montreal’s almost identical patterns when playing their first fixture of the season in Champions League are not coincidental.

Facing such a high profile match before a competitive ball has been kicked in anger is the stuff of folly.

PSG met Real Madrid in the round of 16 this week in UEFA’s Champions League. I know Concacaf is not UEFA, but in this case the same argument actually does apply. Could you see either of those super-clubs playing out that fixture as their respective season-opener?

Not in a million years is the obvious response. And in Concacaf the comparison becomes even worse, where the central American or Mexican club is generally five or six games into its league season, while the MLS participant has engaged only in non-competitive run-outs.

On the night in Torreon, Montreal owed much of the credit to Sebastian Breza for keeping the scoreline close. At one point in the first half it was beginning to resemble the Aguirre v Breza show, such was the frequency of duels between the pair.

And remember this was against a side struggling for form, conceding lots of goals and which had gleaned only one point form its first five Clausura rounds. They sit rock bottom of the LigaMX table.

Santos Laguna v Montreal - CONCACAF Champions League 2022
Montreal debutant shields the ball from Omar Campos of Santos.
Photo by Jos Alvarez/Jam Media/Getty Images

Santos dominated and looked more menacing as the game wore on. The goal because it arrived so late and enjoyed a touch of fortune, was cruel on Montreal, but it was deserved and you could see it coming.

Gorriaran managed to give Miller the slip and played a low ball into the danger area which deflected upwards off Waterman. The fresher Ocejo, in the right place at the right time, reacted fastest and Breza was finally beaten, two minutes from the end of regulation time.

The Mexicans from Torreon had their first win of the season.

It always promised to be a rearguard action for Montreal, even had the playing field been a level one; a game in which you’d expect the home side to attack and the visitor to repel. Undoubtedly though a better-conditioned Montreal should have carried greater threat on the break, enjoyed improved possession and not treaded so much water in the second-half.

If Montreal is to extend it’s life in 2022 international competition, it will need to be another momentous occasion not unlike the night seven years ago when Cameron Porter raised the roof off the Big ‘O’ (and we all know that takes some doing)...

For options and the element of unpredictability it’s imperative that many of those players missing from the first-leg return.

The Big ‘O’ crowd must do its part as well.

And even then, the match-fitness, slender one goal lead and lack of an away goal for CFM, makes Santos favourites for another Champions League triumph over Montreal.

But still I wonder... can Wilfried Nancy find another Eduardo Sebrango? Even just for one night only?

Line-ups -
Santos Laguna: Acevedo - Govea (Ottantia, 79), Torres, Doria, Campos - Cervantes, Games (Carillo, 71), Gorriaran - Lozano (Suarez, 61) - Aguirre (Ocejo, 79), Preciado
Subs (not used): Perez, Prieto, Rodriguez

CFM: Breza - Corbo, Waterman, Miller - Choiniere (Brault-Guillard, 83), Zouhir (Miljevic, 82), Wanyama, Lappalainen (Bassong, 64) - Torres, Quioto, Mihailovic.
Subs (not used): Pantemis, Thorkelsson, Camacho, Kone

Match Officials -
Referee: Oshane Nation (JAM)
Asst Ref: Damian Williams (JAM), Richard Washington (JAM)
VAR: Daneion Parchment (JAM)