Cruz Azul releases its demons with CONCACAF Champions League triumph over Toluca
Heartbreak loomed for Cruz Azul with each passing second as the second half unfolded at Estadio Nemesio Diez. Potential disappointment never drifted too far away given the narrow margins in the second leg of this CONCACAF Champions League final and the wreckage of the past to unload.
There were too many instances of failure to recall and too much pain to obtain any sense of comfort with the score perched at 1-1 on aggregate and in the tie for the final half-hour. The assured performance on the night, the opener from Mariano Pavone four minutes before halftime and the sturdy defiance only went so far to assuage the doubts. These players and this club needed to see the match through before they could actually believe joy would overcome despair.
Every minute offered Cruz Azul an opportunity to relent and succumb once more. Jesús Corona produced a fine save from a deflected effort after 73 minutes to maintain parity. La Máquina packed inside its own area to repel wave after wave of pressure and sprung forward intelligently to relieve pressure whenever possible as the match lurched toward full time.
The two-legged tie came down to one decisive, fate-changing moment in the final seconds. Miguel Ponce rasped a stinging drive from distance. Corona produced an excellent save to parry the swerving effort away. The rebound fell kindly to Pablo Velázquez six yards from goal, but the Paraguayan snatched at his attempt to turn home. Marco Antonio Rodriguez subsequently blew the whistle to end the match and transform Cruz Azul from nearly men with one Copa MX title and a string of second-place finishes in the past 17 years into continental champions for a record sixth time.
Veteran midfielder Gerardo Torrado released the frustrations accumulated from setback after setback when he thrust the trophy high into the air. This group no longer needed wonder what if or what could have been. It now possessed the opportunity to revel in what it had achieved after this triumph and wonder what the trip to Morocco for the Club World Cup might hold later this year.
Much of this night reflected the way Cruz Azul proceeded from this tournament from the outset. There were no accommodations made or achievements taken for granted. This club took its duty to the competition seriously and tromped through it to reach this point on the strength of its resolve and its skill.
There were no easy moments, no straightforward tasks to dispatch in the championship stage. MLS Cup winners Sporting Kansas City presented a formidable hurdle in the quarterfinals and won the first leg at Sporting Park. A stellar second-leg display at Estadio Azul emphatically reversed the 1-0 deficit and set up a semifinal against Club Tijuana. The same formula – narrow road defeat followed by victory at home – handed La Máquina this chance to banish their demons once and for all.
Instead of shrinking away from the responsibility after a scoreless draw in the first leg in Mexico City, Cruz Azul embraced it. The visitors accepted the challenge ahead and pursued the game from the opening whistle. They showed few signs of the scars from the past and summoned the sort of impetus required to salve them for good. Pavone rewarded those efforts when he turned Marco Fabián’s square pass shortly before the interval to snatch the precious away goal.
Toluca’s inevitable response after halftime placed Cruz Azul under the sort of pressure designed to make them crack. Benītez seized upon some slack defending to equalize at the near post. Corona – restored to the starting XI after the CONCACAF Appeals Committee cut his three-match suspension to one on Monday – and his teammates did not buckle or shirk at that point. They absorbed the home side’s endeavor and maintained control of their bearings. They shined in the face of considerable scrutiny. And Corona produced his best moment at the most opportune moment to ensure all of those efforts did not lead to a painful setback yet again.
Their reward came once Rodriguez ended their 17-year drought in CONCACAF’s top club competition, placed them atop the all-time charts in this tournament and released their burdens with one last whistle. It proved no less than this group deserved after persevering through disappointment after disappointment in order to summon the fortitude to step into the light once more.