It was a precious breakthrough, the kind that can lay the foundation for a dramatic upset.
With a shimmy of the hips and a few quick touches, Romell Quioto conjured up a gorgeously-taken goal for CF Montréal just a few minutes into their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 visit to Santos Laguna, slamming a low strike into the far side netting from an acute angle at Estadio Corona in Torreon Tuesday night.
But Video Review intervened, scotching Montréal’s priceless early advantage in hostile territory far from home thanks to a Lassi Lappalainen foul committed in the buildup.
“Listen, this is difficult, to accept that,” said a frustrated CFM coach Wilfried Nancy postgame.
Let off the hook, Santos stabilized, and slowly but relentlessly tilted the pitch in their direction, finally breaking through via Jesus Ocejo’s instinctive close-range header in the 88th minute to snatch a 1-0 first-leg win at the death and ensure the Mexican giants would carry an aggregate advantage to Montréal.
The underdogs from Quebec could really have used that away goal. Instead they’ll have to mount a comeback – albeit a feasible one – in the second leg Feb. 22 at Stade Olympique.
“Apparently that was a foul. Difficult to handle it, difficult to accept,” continued Nancy, revealing he’d also been unhappy with the slow handling of a substitution by Jamaican referee Oshane Nation and his crew, who made a few other confusion-inducing calls on the night. “I cannot talk too much about the foul, because I did not see, but apparently there was a foul. But for me, this is a soft one.”
The final result was rough justice for a relatively inexperienced CFM side with eight of 11 starters making their first CCL appearance for the club, and two (18-year-old homegrown Rida Zouhir and loanee defender Gabriele Corbo) making their debut start for Montréal. The visitors nevertheless battled tenaciously and Nancy dubbed himself “pretty happy” with their overall performance.
“We started well, and after that we didn't control the ball the way we wanted, because we didn't have the emotional control that we should have and it's normal also, because this is new, it was not easy,” said the coach. “At halftime I said to my players to try to be composed, slow down the play; when you see the good moment, speed it up. And so we had a really good moment collectively, and I’m really happy because this is us, this is the way we want to play, at home or away.”
As is so often the case in early-season matches, Montréal’s work in the final third generally didn’t live up to their efforts further down the pitch. And even in the midst of their very sluggish start to the 2022 Liga MX Clausura, Santos have the quality to take advantage; they would rack up 16 corners and 26 shots over the 90-plus minutes.
“We missed the extra pass,” said Nancy. “So we had good sequences, yes, but we missed the extra pass to give the ball to the right person to be able to finish the action. But again, the players showed a lot of personality in the second half – and also in the first half, because again, to play here, it’s not easy.”
Longtime CCL observers might note other MLS teams have fared much, much worse on trips to Mexico over the years, especially considering their opponents’ wealth of talent and their own preseason fitness levels. CFM have ample reasons to hope a spirited crowd back in the City of Saints can roar them onward and as Nancy noted, they now have clarity that at least one goal will be necessary to advance.
“The team is feeling good to go back home and we're really excited,” said homegrown midfielder Mathieu Choinière. “Going back in front of our fans at home, it will be a great experience bringing Champions League. For some of the people in the team it will be our first time, so we're all excited about it and we just want to do well at home in front of our fans.”