FOX Soccer Exclusive
America bids to make history
Mexico City spent most of the week bracing for the spectacle poised to unfold at Estadio Azul on Thursday night. Club América and Cruz Azul waited 24 years to renew their rivalry with the domestic title hanging in the balance. The supporters lining up for tickets ahead of this two-legged tie expected both teams to relish the opportunity to once again transfer Clásico Joven onto this grand stage.
Perhaps the pressure of delivering a title and producing a first leg for the ages ultimately told. The most prolific sides in Liga MX struggled to find their footing or locate their sharpness in front of goal. Christian Giménez pounced on a defensive error to head home the winner inside the first 20 minutes and Jesús Corona produced an instinctual save from the otherwise subdued Christian Benítez in the second half, but the match otherwise reflected the soggy conditions.
It did, however, produce that critical goal. Cruz Azul travels to Estadio Azteca with a slight edge in the tie after securing a 1-0 victory on home soil. The narrow margin between the teams leaves the series delicately and wonderfully poised to belatedly deliver the expected drama on Sunday night.
América enters the affair as slight favorites to overturn the first leg deficit and secure a first domestic championship since the 2005 Clausura. Veteran boss Miguel Herrera took much of the sting out of the first leg with his tactical choices and watched his out-of-sorts charges unsettle the unconvincing Cruz Azul rearguard in the second half without engineering the expected breakthrough.
The failure to score at Estadio Azul will not prove unduly harmful given the absence of the away goals rule in the final. It is rather within the justifiable range of expectations to demand a two-goal win at the Azteca. The earlier meeting between the clubs at this venue in March yielded a Benítez hat-trick and a three-goal triumph with both teams eventually reduced to 10 men.
Benítez will expect to exert significant influence on this affair even if he does not quite hit those heights. The burly striker and partner Raúl Jiménez received intermittent supply in the first leg with usual schemer Rubens Sambueza peripheral to the proceedings and fullbacks Adrián Aldrete and Miguel Layún focused on trying to maintain the proper shape. The shift in venue and the situation at hand should ensure a palpable desire to push forward in search of goals.
Cruz Azul must hope the additional impetus prompts Herrera to drop one of his two holding players in midfield and provide more operating room for Giménez and Pablo Barrera. Both could use the additional space. Barrera – vital to the overall uptick in form after the emotional Copa MX victory over Atlante last month – embarked on one or two driving runs and provided the corner kick for Giménez's winner, but he offered little in the run of play and tucked inside too often to provide the natural width required to pull apart América's trio of centerbacks. Giménez floated around earnestly and pestered defenders without threatening as often as he would have preferred.
In order to claim La Máquina's first league title since 1997, Barrera and Giménez must increase their hold on the match and present chances to Teófilo Gutiérrez and Javier Orozco. Neither striker offered much in the first leg, but both of them must step forward in the second leg with top scorer Mariano Pavone (knee) unlikely to feature from the start after his late cameo revealed a distinct lack of fitness. Pavone could still have a part to play, but the visitors must hope they have already found some way through by that stage of the encounter or else face the prospect of sending on their top scorer to reclaim a title already slipping away.
Cruz Azul isn't equipped to weather the inevitable onslaught at Estadio Azteca without shipping a goal or two. The visitors may enter this second leg with a lead and will expect considerable improvement at the back, but they cannot rest upon the defiance of their rearguard in a futile bid to survive. They are not constructed to defend for 90 minutes. Any attempt to do so will ultimately end in frustration and heartbreak.
Those potential failings may worry Guillermo Vázquez as he attempts to sustain his side's belief for one final match, but they also set the stage for a potentially engaging conclusion to the Clausura. The first leg disappointed. The second leg, however, possesses all of the ingredients – the scant difference between the teams, the substantial incentive for the home side to push forward, the tantalizing prospect of a goal or two on the break for the visitors – to deliver upon its substantial promise.
One of these two storied sides – América could join C.D. Guadalajara on a record 11 titles, Cruz Azul is in pursuit of its ninth triumph – will lift the trophy on Sunday night. If all unfolds according to expectation this time around, then they might even accomplish the feat in a manner befitting the magnitude of the occasion.