Cruz Azul, Toluca prepare for start of CONCACAF Champions League final
Cruz Azul once again stands on the edge of triumph. The line between success and failure represents a perilous location for the Mexican giants, a place of hope so often transformed into the absolute depths of despair.
There are few other responses to encountering the same painful fate time and time again: reaching the final only to lose it. Not even the purported elixir – a victory over Atlante on penalty kicks to lift Copa MX last spring – managed to jar Cruz Azul from its disconcerting pattern in league and continental play. La Máquina simply proceeded along its same path by watching hated rivals Club América muster a comeback for the ages to thwart their hopes of lifting the Clausura.
Another opportunity to vanquish the lingering demons beckons in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Toluca tonight (8:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2). Cruz Azul cannot afford to waste the opportunity grab firm control of the tie before the return leg at Estadio Nemesio Diez. This isn’t the sort of situation where Luis Fernando Tena and his players can afford to leave anything to fate in pursuit of a record sixth title.
“I’m happy to have the chance again, now, to work well to be able to get the title,” Cruz Azul midfielder Gerardo Torrado told CONCACAF.com after the semifinal triumph over Club Tijuana. “We still haven’t won anything. We are in the final stage. We have to work and analyze them well and look to win.”
Careful examination offers some room for encouragement. The top two sides in the Liga MX table followed divergent paths to the fifth final between Mexican sides in six editions of the Champions League. Cruz Azul assumed its duties seriously in the knockout stages, omitted players when appropriate in league play for these continental duties and reaped the desired benefits with generally assured displays. Toluca adopted a more carefree approach with its team selection and scraped through the quarterfinals against a tattered San Jose side with the aid of penalty kicks. The rather more straightforward work against LD Alajuelense in the semifinals provided little evidence of a revamped deportment, even with the improved outcome.
Red Devils boss José Cardozo cannot afford any indulgences at this stage. Cruz Azul may bear the weight of history, but it does not want for players capable of altering it. Marco Fabián and Mauro Formica propel this in-form side forward with the ideal mixture of savvy (Mariano Pavone to lead the line, Christian Giménez to spark the group with his creativity) and skill. This group possesses all of the necessary tools to procure the desired result at Estadio Azul, though it must make a change in goal with Guillermo Allison likely to deputize for the suspended Jesús Corona.
Toluca presents a credible threat to those aspirations with a formidable attack (Raul Nava tops the Champions League goalscoring charts with seven, though his place for the final is in some doubt with the regular starters likely to feature) in place and a penchant for grinding out results in this competitions. The mixture of defiance and sharpness supplies a potential counterweight to Cruz Azul’s ambitions, particularly with the operating principles in play and the rest afforded to the first-team regulars at the weekend in anticipation for the final. A draw or a narrow defeat with a goal or two scored – particularly given Cruz Azul’s previous second-leg struggles – constitutes an acceptable result for a side confident of turning the tie over in Toluca next Wednesday.
At this stage of the competition, those mundane realities take a back seat to the overarching objectives, though. Toluca isn’t merely muddling along now. Cardozo wants his players to grab this final by the scruff and secure control over the proceedings with a determined first-leg display.
“Our minds are already on the final on Tuesday and playing well against Cruz Azul,” Cardozo told his club’s official website after the 2-1 victory over León on Saturday. “It is a final and we have to win. We are into the game. It will not be easy for us or for Cruz Azul because it is our intention to play well and win to bring a significant advantage back from Estadio Azul.”
Those plans will encounter ample resistance from a Cruz Azul side steeled in its desire to overcome its recent failings. The conditions – the right blend within the ranks, a manager with the experience of leading Cruz Azul to a Champions Cup triumph back in 1997 – are in place to eradicate the established trend. It is now just a matter of finding the conviction required to take that final step and transform this group of nearly men into champions yet again.