Mexico’s Primera Division kicks off its postseason tournament on Saturday when second-seeded Cruz Azul visits Morelia for the first leg of their quarterfinal match. FOXSoccer.com’s Eben Lehman has the preview:
After weeks of offensive struggles, Cruz Azul ended the year on a high note. That it came against a cross-town rival only added to the satisfaction. The 3-1 win over Club America also came at a perfect time, as it gives the team some badly needed scoring momentum heading into the Liguilla.
Apertura high point
The last week of the season was a special one for Morelia. Needing six points just to have a chance at Liguilla appearance, Monarcas pulled off two wins in four days. The final victory was an impressive 1-0 win over Jaguares, shutting out one of the top attacking teams in the league.
Prior to the win over America, Cruz Azul’s attack was running on fumes. A string of forgettable performances was highlighted by a listless 0-1 loss to Queretaro in October. A late penalty gave the Gallos Blancos all three points as Cruz Azul were shutout for the fourth time.
One of Morelia’s big deficiencies has been their lack of form at home. In eight matches at Estadio Morelos they claimed just three wins – pitiful numbers, especially for a team that made the postseason. A 0-2 loss at home to Estudiantes Tecos on October 1st served as the nadir, but on a positive note, it was also the team’s last loss of the season.
As the attack faltered, the defense carried Cruz Azul through a significant stretch of the season. Anchored by Waldo Ponce and Julio Cesar Dominguez, the Cruz Azul backline raised their game to a new level during the Apertura. The Chilean Ponce was particularly impressive, turning in one of the finest performances of his career.
Player to watch
The ageless veteran Miguel Sabah is the glue that binds this Morelia team. While manager Tomas Boy guides the team from the sideline, Sabah leads on the field. Remarkably consistent considering the miles on his odometer, Sabah started every game this season; his seven goals a team high. Monarcas also never lost a game in which Sabah found the back of the net.
Six months ago, the Liguilla semifinal match between these two teams ended with a massive brawl. Fans invaded the field of play, players exchanged punches, and Cruz Azul goalkeeper Jesus Corona delivered a shocking headbutt to a member of the Morelia coaching stuff. This year’s Liguilla promises less violence, but you can still expect an intense series between two evenly matched teams.
If Cruz Azul wants to turn the tables on Morelia this season, they first have to find a way to score with some consistency. La Maquina carry the lowest scoring numbers of any team that qualified for the Liguilla. A reoccurring problem has been getting the ball to striker Emanuel Villa, who was been stranded alone on an island for long stretches this season. While the offense did end the year on a high note, it was also against Club America. The Morelia defense presents a much stiffer challenge.
Last season’s Liguilla runners up needed a late season scramble just to make the playoffs this time around. That doesn’t mean anyone should be taking Morelia lightly, though. With no losses since October 1st, Monarcas promise to be a tough out for number two seed Cruz Azul. From top to bottom, Morelia actually match up very well with their first round opponents. The narrow gap between the two teams was on full display when they met during the regular season. For 90 minutes Morelia and Cruz Azul battled to a scoreless stalemate before a stoppage time goal from Joao Rojas earned Monarcas the narrowest of victories.
The big challenge for Morelia in this series, as the lower seed, will be getting a result in the first leg at home. While their form improved over the final month of the Apertura, Morelia can still claim only three wins in eight games at Estadio Morleos.
The key to a long playoff run is winning at home. Morelia has to prove they can take care of business in front of the home fans before anyone can take them seriously as Liguilla championship contenders.