Emmanuel Ekpo scored the only goal that the Columbus Crew would need on Wednesday night, sending visiting Municipal from Guatemala to a 1-0 defeat in the first game of this year’s CONCACAF Champions League. The result, combined with Santos’ 5-2 demolition of Joe Public in Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday night, leaves the Crew in second place in their group, behind Santos on goal differential.
The game was at times a chippy affair, with the Crew players frequently appealing to referee Roberto Garcia for fouls that they felt should have been called. Ultimately, however, it was Columbus who ended up the villains on the night, with two cautions and 17 fouls called on the home team against only one caution and 10 fouls for the visitors.
Municipal had a trio of scoring chances between the 9th and 11th minutes that could have put the Crew on the back foot early. After Mario Rodriguez was unable to find a teammate on an otherwise dangerous run down the left side channel in the 9th minute, Andy Gruenebaum was called into action a minute later.
Pesky winger Jaime Vides got the ball into the left side of the penalty area after Shaun Francis missed badly attempting to cut out a lateral pass. Vides’ cross found the head of former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Guillermo Ramirez, but Frankie Hejduk recovered just enough to pressure the shot and Gruenebaum was able to puch the ball away.
The final chance came as Ramirez broke the Crew’s offside trap on a ball played in from the right flank. As the ball dropped into the space between Gruenebaum and the Crew’s back four, Ramirez flailed at it with his head for a shot that would have been effectively point blank on goal, but couldn’t make any contact and the ball skidded out for a goal kick.
Three minutes later, the Crew took the lead through the individual skill of Emmanuel Ekpo. Receiving a pass from Frankie Hejduk pressing up the right flank, Ekpo went on a mazy run through the massed Municipal defense, beating a handful of players in fairly tight space. Breaking through the back line and into the penalty area, he had just enough time to look up and shoot with one touch toward the far post, nestling the ball into the far side netting.
Columbus nearly doubled their advantage several times throughout the first half, starting in the 18th minute, but Municipal goalkeeper Jaime Penedo did well to tip Eddie Gaven’s long range shot away from the upper corner and out for a corner kick. The next scoring chance came in the 30th minute as Guillermo Barros Schelotto had a good look at goal, but his placed shot wasn’t quite accurate enough as Penedo made a relatively easy save.
Throughout the first half, while the Crew did not falter as badly as they did around the 10 minute mark, Shaun Francis was regularly tested on the left side by wing midfielder Jaime Vides. Several times those two players engaged in battles for speed or the ball, and while Francis did reasonably well he was occasionally beaten. Thankfully for fans of the Crew, those breakdowns never resulted in a dangerous scoring opportunity.
Given Vides’ success in facing off against Francis on the Crew’s left flank, it was surprising when Municipal made a pair of substitutions at halftime which pulled Vides back onto the defensive line. Marvin Avila and Juan Castillo were both brought on to run the flanks, replacing the rather ineffective Pablo Melgar and Pablo Soloranzo.
Columbus put pressure on Penedo’s goal early in the second half, with Jason Garey and Guillermo Barros Schelotto unlucky not to combine better after Garey got behind his marker on a dead run into the penalty area.
Ten minutes later, that hustle from Garey was sorely needed. In the 59th minute, Emmanuel Ekpo went on a run up the left flank and into the penalty area, with Garey matching Ekpo on his own run up the middle of the field. When Ekpo did not send in a cross from the top of the penalty area, though, Garey slowed his run to wait at the penalty spot for a possible pass back. Unfortuntely, Ekpo chose to cross – and got the ball past his defender and Penedo, where it bounced through the six yard box – agonizingly waiting for a forward to tap into an empty net.
Two minutes later, it was Schelotto’s turn to squander a golden scoring opportunity. A precise series of passes started with Ekpo – now on the left flank – across to Adam Moffat, to Schelotto, who sent a delicately-weighted ball through the Municipal back line for the run of Jason Garey. Garey’s pass back toward the penalty spot found Schelotto, incredibly unmarked, but the Argentine forward’s shot missed high over the crossbar.
As the second half wore on, however, Municipal started to threaten to find an equalizer. In the 69th minute the Crew fell back on defense a bit too much, and were only saved when winger Marvin Avila badly shanked his shot with a good look at goal from the top of the penalty area.
The Crew made a tactical adjustment in the 70th minute, replacing Adam Moffat with Emilio Renteria. This shifted Eddie Gaven into the center of midfield, allowing Jason Garey to run the right flank while Renteria pressured the defense from an advanced forward position.
Renteria’s runs at the defense caused quite a bit of trouble, and no small amount of controversy in the 85th minute. Garey and Schelotto combined on the right side, with Schelotto touching the ball centrally for the hard-charging run of Renteria into a gap in the Municipal defense. The Venezuelan forward gained the penalty area and went down under a slide tackle that appeared to come from behind, but referee Roberto Garcia judged the tackle to have gotten the ball first, and the howls of the home fans and the players fell on deaf ears.
While Municipal continued to pressure the Crew as best they could, they were unable to find an opening to produce a shot on Andy Gruenebaum’s goal after the 48th minute. Despite several anxious moments at the close of the game, the Crew were able to see out the four minutes of injury time and claim their first three points of the Champions League.