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Monterrey digs deep for third title
The magical run couldn't end like this. Not at Estadio Tecnológico. Not to frequent foes Santos Laguna. Not with a two-goal defeat in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final.
Monterrey did not ascend to its perch and maintain it for two straight tournaments by succumbing under adverse circumstances. There are many reasons why Los Rayados continue to dominate in this competition. Fortitude and resolve feature prominently among them.
And they needed both of those qualities on Wednesday night. Felipe Baloy's header five minutes into the second half would have knocked most teams down for the count. Baloy's impressive display of strength – the Panama international held off two markers to nod inside the far post – staked Santos to a two-goal lead in this match and in the series. The seemingly decisive tally should have sent Santos to the Club World Cup in December.
It instead summoned a response for the ages from the holders. Monterrey leaned on its strengths – astute tactical changes, dogged persistence and talented players capable of producing at the right time – to roar back to claim a 4-2 victory. The emphatic reply secured a fifth major title in five calendar years and a place beside Cruz Azul (1969-71) as the only sides to win three consecutive editions of this tournament.
Aldo de Nigris set Monterrey back on that historic path when he pulled the first goal back on the hour. Santos inexplicably found itself caught out on the counter. A couple of deft passes, an inviting cross from the lively Jesús Corona and a timely run from Luis Madrigal to distract Baloy allowed de Nigris to slot home at the far post and spark the tie back to life.
Santos buckled down over the next few minutes and showed why it remains a generally well organized defensive outfit. Monterrey manager Victor Manuel Vucetich inserted fit-again Neri Cardozo (a hugely influential figure on this evening) and Severo Meza and withdrew a couple of defenders in a bid to provide more variety to the direct service dominating the proceedings at that juncture.
The home side flailed around a bit in its attempts to unlock the Santos defense, but the persistence eventually paid off from a corner kick seven minutes from time. De Nigris won the set piece by knocking the ball off of one of the two defenders at close attention. Cardozo tucked a poor clearance from the resulting service inside the near post to place Monterrey within one goal of salvation.
It arrived from yet another free kick near midfield three minutes from time. Meza's incisive run from the right forced Baloy into a rather unnecessary foul in the middle third. Humberto Suazo curled the resulting set piece toward the top of the goal area. De Nigris floated free from his marker at the back post and nodded the service off the ground and into the net to spark wild celebrations.
That effort won the match, but Suazo fittingly provided the gloss in second-half stoppage time. Jesús Zavala corralled a poke from de Nigris at midfield and tore down the open left side of the Santos rearguard. The ramshackle defense collapsed on Zavala and invited him to square to Suazo at the back post. The emblematic striker tucked into the empty net to cap off the night in some style.
Monterrey's latest run through the Champions League deserved that extra touch of class before it concluded with yet another trophy. Vucetich and his players navigated through the competition without suffering a defeat. They weathered stern challenges from LA Galaxy in the semifinals (another second leg late show rescued that tie as well) and Santos Laguna (even though Pedro Caixinha's side struggled for large portions of the series) in this epic final. They worked their way to the summit once again without stumbling along the way.
They lifted their trophy again as a reward for those efforts. Many clubs have tried to knock them from this perch over the past two years. None of them have discovered the right formula to stop this defiant and proud group from asserting its supremacy once more.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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