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If Alianza Lima had a spirit animal, it would be a cat because they’ve proven that they have nine lives, especially in marquee games.
Alianza have often salvaged results in big matches this season after lacklustre starts. They conceded the first goal in two Superclásicos matchups versus Universitario, but managed to overturn those deficits. The same occurred against Sporting Cristal in September.
Sunday was the latest monumental comeback for Alianza. Down 3-0 at home to Melgar after 68 minutes in the first leg of the Descentralizado semifinal, los Blanquiazules scored three goals in eight minutes to pull out a 3-3 draw.
While Melgar has the slight advantage for Thursday’s second leg in Arequipa, Alianza may have the mental edge. That’s why it’s imperative for el Domino to forget what transpired on Sunday.
Here is a deep dive into the storylines and the players to watch ahead of the second leg.
Alianza Lima coach Pablo Bengoechea deserves credit for throwing on Óscar “Neka” Vílchez and Maximiliano Lemos in the second half of the first leg. The additional midfield support, specifically in the attacking third, overwhelmed Melgar and could’ve led to a fourth goal for Alianza.
However, this is a familiar pattern for Bengoechea. In the final Superclásico of the season, Vílchez and Lemos checked into the game and Alianza turned the match on its head.
Yet this poses a serious question about Bengoechea. Should the Uruguayan be praised for reacting to an in-game situation, or should he have recognized the initial problems during his pre-match preparation?
There’s credence to both arguments. However, there’s no denying the issues that Melgar’s direct style of play presented to Alianza’s defence, especially right-back Hansell Riojas, who was constantly targeted.
Hernán Torres recognized that Riojas was the weakness in Alianza’s back line and capitalized on each of the goals.
Vílchez could serve a necessary role as a starter, especially with his ability to connect with the forwards. Despite logging just 20 minutes in the first leg, his passing sequences with Kevin Quevedo logged the second-highest amount of passes, and that allowed Quevedo to further exploit full-back Nilson Loyola.
Considering Alianza need to score at least once to advance to the final, it would behoove Bengoechea to bolster the midfield for the second leg.
Can Melgar handle the high press?
Melgar entered the first leg with a clear plan. They wanted Alianza Lima to control possession so that los Rojinegros could capitalize on counter-attacks.
However, once Bengoechea strengthened his midfield, Alianza’s shape changed. Instead of playing slightly deeper and with a lower tempo, the pace of the match increased and the hosts began to hound Melgar’s defence.
It was evident that Nilson Loyola was the main target for Alianza, just like Hansell Riojas was exploited by Melgar. Vílchez (No. 21), Quevedo (No. 27) and Luis Garro (No. 23) overloaded the right flank, which is where Alianza’s opener and equalizer were created.
Loyola’s form has been pretty woeful in 2018, yet Melgar coped in this game before Vílchez and Lemos entered the match. That’s because Alianza lacked precision and incisiveness in the final third.
Luckily for Torres, Melgar will likely win the possession battle in the second leg, but his side struggled mightily against the high press and could do so again.
Players to watch
Alexis Arias (Melgar): Arias was having a solid game until Alianza’s comeback began. The 22-year-old midfielder was seemingly overwhelmed by the endless waves of pressure and lost out on most of his defensive duels. This cannot occur in the second leg if Melgar hopes to advance to the final.
Kevin Quevedo (Alianza Lima): While he’s had his disciplinary problems this season, Quevedo has been a difference-maker when he’s heavily involved in a match for Alianza. No one completed more key passes than Quevedo (4) in the first leg, keeping Nilson Loyola on his toes across the 90 minutes.