Mexico top fligh retains regional crown
The competitive evolution of the CONCACAF Champions League imperiled Mexico's dominance and threatened to alter the status quo in this edition of the tournament.
Despite the increasing threat presented by Major League Soccer sides during the knockout stages, the usual pecking order remained. Liga MX even manifested its superiority in familiar fashion: Monterrey and Santos Laguna emerged from the semifinals to vie for the chance to lift yet another trophy.
This rematch of last year's final leaves one primary question to solve when this two-legged tie commences at Estadio Corona (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET): can Monterrey maintain its own perch atop the region and secure its place in history?
Victor Manuel Vucetich's side enters this final as the dominant team in the CONCACAF Champions League era after winning the past two editions. The triumphs over Real Salt Lake (2010-11) and Santos (2011-12) earned Monterrey a pair of opportunities to feature on the world stage and placed them in a position to occupy a vaunted spot in the record books.
In the long and storied history of the CONCACAF Champions League, only one team has won the tournament in three consecutive years. Mexican giants Cruz Azul accomplished the feat from 1969-1971 in an era when Curaçao, Haiti and Suriname contributed finalists and winners and the United States did not participate in the proceedings.
It is far more difficult for a team to cobble together such a dominant run in the present landscape. Although the economic downturn over the past few years has stripped away some of the usual challengers from Central America, the competition still boasts strong sides from MLS and Liga MX and the occasional interloper from elsewhere.
Despite the improvement in the overall depth of the region, Monterrey will defend its title against Santos for a second straight year. The two sides have met in four separate finals since squaring off for Mexican superiority to close out the 2010 Apertura campaign. Vucetich has guided his side to victory in three of the four meetings, though Santos capped off a fine domestic campaign with an important triumph to complete the 2012 Clausura.
Santos will hope to use its success in this edition of the Clausura to end Monterrey's dominance in this competition. Pedro Caixinha's side enters this final on a nine-match unbeaten run in all competitions after recovering from a 1-0 defeat at Houston in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie on March 5. The recent run of good form even includes a 1-0 victory over Monterrey in a peculiarly timed Liga MX meeting on Friday night.
Felipe Baloy's winner guaranteed Santos' berth in the Liguilla and handed Caixinha plenty of latitude to keep his players fresh between the first and the second legs. Caixinha's ability to rotate his squad – a luxury perhaps not available to Monterrey given its tenuous place in the playoff picture – could influence the tie in a minor way. BSoth teams boast a litany of experienced and proven players capable of navigating this scenario regardless of any fatigue.
With the margin between the teams so tight, the outcome of this tie likely hinges on how the star men manage to exert their influence on the proceedings. Santos will lean on the potent trio of Hérculez Gómez, Oribe Peralta and Carlos Darwin Quintero to break quickly on the counter and take advantage of the opportunities difficult to procure against the organized opposition. Monterrey will ask its defense to hold firm in the face of those threats, rely on its veteran midfield group to keep things moving and task Aldo de Nigris and Humberto Suazo with producing once again at the most important time.
The proceedings over the past few years – plus Monterrey's unbeaten run through the tournament to date – suggest the holders will not concede their title easily. Santos must obtain a positive result in the first leg at Estadio Corona on Wednesday night to place itself in the best possible position to topple their frequent adversaries. Anything less than a victory – by a couple of goals, if possible – may leave too much for even this in-form side to accomplish at Estadio Tecnológico in a week's time.
It is a difficult brief Santos to fulfill, but the challengers understand all too well how hard it is to topple Monterrey in a final. If Vucetich and his players can live up to their hard-earned reputations yet again, then they may just find a way to cement their legacy and prolong their period of dominance atop this improving region.