FOX Soccer Exclusive
America, Cruz Azul draw city limits
Both clubs have made something of a habit of squandering their significant financial resources and stumbling at the sharp end of the season. Club América hit rock bottom after winning the Clausura in 2005 and reaching the final in the 2007 Clausura before working its way back to prominence. Cruz Azul somehow faltered in a series of finals and went 16 years between major titles before lifting Copa MX in April.
All of the recent heartache rather obscures the stations of the two sides and their histories. Club América and Cruz Azul should reach this point more often given their past successes (América has won 10 titles, Cruz Azul eight) and their talented squads (among the strongest in the country). Their appearance in the final at the same time increases the stakes for two sides incapable of comprehending a defeat in this high-stakes pair of Clásico Joven meetings.
This rivalry always produces compelling and tense affairs, but this pair of matches assumes additional meaning given the setting. The two teams have not met in a Liguilla final since the 1988-89 season. On that fraught occasion, América won the second of two consecutive titles under the direction of itinerant Brazilian manager Jorge Vieira with a 5-4 victory on aggregate. Las Águilas also defeated Cruz Azul in the semifinals en route to their last championship eight years ago.
Another triumph will bring América level with C.D. Guadalajara with a Mexican-record 11 titles, but Cruz Azul enters this tie with a genuine chance to overturn the nominal favorites after a resounding 5-1 aggregate triumph over Santos Laguna in the semifinals.
Guillermo Vázquez's side has hit its stride since defeating Atlante in the Copa MX final last month. A run of seven wins in eight matches – the lone defeat came in the second leg of the quarterfinal victory over similarly in-form Morelia – carried La Máquina from mid-table into the Liguilla final.
Vázquez – a former winner of this competition with Pumas in the 2011 Clausura – deserves ample credit for keeping his side on track despite the January departure of winger Javier Aquino to Villarreal and the recent knee injury to leading scorer Mariano Pavone. Pablo Barrera's return from a knee injury presented a direct replacement for the departed Aquino as the Clausura progressed and the ex-West Ham man supplied a bit more nous in the final third.
Barrera will once again prove critical to Cruz Azul's cause in the final. Most of the profitable lines of inquiry against América involve a thorough examination in the wide areas, particularly when the wingbacks surge forward to join the attack. If Barrera can push high on the right and Teófilo Gutiérrez can slide out wide from time to time on the left, then América's three-man back line will attempt to cover those runs and provide space for either Christian Giménez (running forward from midifeld) and either Orozco or Pavone (if passed fit) to exploit in the middle.
In order for those potential advantages to take hold, Cruz Azul must find a way to control the tempo of the game with veteran Gerardo Torrado in the center of the park (slower is probably better) and cope with América's rather fearsome work in the final third. The lone Clausura meeting between the two sides saw América dominate in possession after Israel Castro's first-half dismissal and coast to a 3-0 victory even after Paul Aguilar's second-half exit restored parity. Christian Benitez ultimately separated the sides with his hat trick as América stated its title credentials in somewhat irrefutable fashion.
Benitez will once again prove critical after scoring three times in América's 4-3 aggregate victory over Monterrey in the semifinals. His partnership with Mexican international Raúl Jiménez should pose a litany of problems for the recently reliable Cruz Azul rearguard (five goals conceded in eight domestic matches since the Copa MX triumph). Jiménez's ability to stretch the match vertically with his pace creates avenues for Benitez to explore with his direct running into the penalty area. If América can keep its usual supply lines – particularly in the wide areas and through Rubens Sambueza in midfield – to the front two open, then Benitez and Jimenez could decide the tie with a moment or two of brilliance inside the penalty area.
Both teams will look for that special moment of magic to determine the outcome over the two legs. If form and general rancor offer any indication of the spectacle to come, then this Gran Final should hang in the balance before the vital second leg at Estadio Azteca. The glamorous denouement provides a fitting way to determine which of these two giants will finally erase those frustrating years in the wilderness and rise to the summit of Mexican soccer once more.