Club Tijuana and Cruz Azul already know Toluca awaits in the CONCACAF Champions League final. They must now determine their own fates in the finely poised second leg of their semifinal tie tonight (8:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2).
Tijuana enters the decisive encounter with a narrow advantage from the opening match in the tie at Estadio Caliente last weekend. Cristian Pellerano converted from the spot after 78 minutes to ensure the Xolos would travel to Mexico City with a 1-0 victory in hand.
It is a tenuous advantage at best given the nature of the assignment ahead. Cruz Azul lost for the first time in 13 home matches in all competitions with the surprising 3-1 defeat to Atlas last month. The shocking setback marked La Máquina’s first defeat of the calendar year and sparked a modest blip in form (winless in three matches), but a 2-1 victory against bitter rivals Club América at Estadio Azteca on Saturday quelled any lingering doubts about a protracted poor run.
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Luis Fernando Tena’s side responded emphatically when placed in a similar position during the quarterfinals. Sporting Kansas City won the first leg by the same margin at Sporting Park, but Cruz Azul mustered a rampant, swashbuckling performance in the second leg to claim a 5-1 victory on the night to arrange this semifinal. Tijuana must guard against a similar response with Marco Fabián (stating his case for a World Cup place with each passing week) and Mauro Fórmica (scorer of the opener against Las Aguilas at the weekend) presenting an ample threat to the usually organized Xolos rearguard.
"In a week, we will make it to the final," Tena told CONCACAF.com after the first leg. "We will turn it around. It will be a very interesting match next week."
Most of the emphasis from the visitors will come inside their own half. The principles of Antonio Mohamed – counterattacking first and foremost with direct, quick play in transition to utilize pace over the top – linger in Tijuana. Xolos boss César Farias leans on Dario Benedetto to lead the line and pester opposing defenses, but this effort will likely hinge on whether Fidel Martínez (selected up front in the first leg) or Richard Ruiz (often trusted to provide a spark off the bench) can present issues when provided with opportunities to do so.
“The home clean sheet weights a lot,” Farias told CONCACAF.com after the first leg. “It gives us many possibilities in the return leg. The win is always nice and it is even better when it is well played. Without a doubt they have the obligation, but we will not make it easy for them.”
Tijuana’s continued struggles away from home will make life difficult on the visitors, too. Farias has procured just two road points in eight matches since taking over before the start of the Clausura. Tijuana has not triumphed in its past 14 matches away from home in Liga MX or CONCACAF Champions League play.
Fortunately for the Xolos, they do not need a victory in order to book a place in the final. A draw will suffice. But it will not come easily, if at all, against a Cruz Azul outfit primed to challenge for success on two fronts over the next couple of months.