In a Final without precedent, the Diablos Rojos are looking to impose their dominant Liguilla form against the Cementeros who are eager to end an 11 year title drought.By César García
Who: Cruz Azul vs. Toluca
What: Apertura 2008 Final, First Leg
When: Thursday, December 11, 2008
6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET,
Where: Estadio Azul, México D.F., México
TV: Azteca America
In their quest for a ninth star, Cruz Azul and Toluca will meet in a final for the first time with their sights set on becoming the third most winning team of Mexican football.
They have faced each other on 12 separate occasions in the Liguilla, but never for the dispute of the title.
In those playoff encounters, Cruz Azul have the advantage with six victories, over the three of Toluca, in addition to three draws.
The last time they met in the Liguilla was in the quarterfinals of the Torneo Clausura 2006, when the Diablos Rojos emerged victorious in the series.
With the championship within reach, La Máquina aim to consolidate themselves as one of Mexico’s elite, while the Diablos hope to finally earn the respect and recognition as one of the top clubs in Mexican football.
In week 11 of the Torneo Apertura 2008, Cruz Azul and Toluca played to a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azul.
La Máquina Celeste earned their ticket to the Liguilla as the fifth spot of the general table, and later went on to eliminate Pumas and Atlante in the playoffs on their path to the championship series.
With the convincing football display against Atlante in the semifinals, the illusion of their faithful to once again celebrate a championship has been boasted on this their 13th disputed final, the most in Mexican football.
Cruz Azul is one of the teams of greater tradition and considered to be part of the "big four" of Mexican football. The cruzazulinos have eight trophies in their showcase, only behind América with 10 and 11 for Chivas.
The Cementeros are presented with a great opportunity to break a title drought that has lasted more than a decade. There last championship victory came in the Invierno 1997, when they defeated León in extra time with a penalty goal scored by Carlos Hermosillo.
This will be the second consecutive final for Cruz Azul who aim to improve on their runners-up finish in the Torneo Clausura 2008 when they were defeated by Santos.
Coach Benjamín Galindo will have to do without 21-year old central defender, Julio César Domínguez, who was suspended in the previous match against Atlante.
The Diablos Rojos do not enjoy the same popularity and notoriety of Cruz Azul, but they have been one of the most successful sides of the last decade.
Since the introduction of the double-torneo format per season in 1996, Toluca have dominated in the Liguillas with six championships out of nine finals appearances.
Similar to their rival, the Choriceros count with eight titles to their name, including the Verano 1998, 1999, 2000 and Torneo Apertura 2002 and 2005. Also, they were defeated in their most recent championship series in the Apertura 2006.
They entered the decisive phase as the second spot of classification with 27 points and only two units behind Superlider San Luis.
In the Liguilla, they imposed their virtually invincible home record to dispose of Tecos in the quarterfinals and left the title up-for-grabs after they eliminated champion Santos in the semifinal round.
Toluca have in their ranks the best-of-the-best on both the defensive and offensive ends.
In attack, they have top goal scoarer Héctor Mancilla, who scored 11 goals in the regular season and added two more in the playoffs. And in goal, veteran goalkeeper Hernán Cristante, has proven to be an impasse after establishing the new record of 772 minutes without receiving a goal.
On the bench, there will be a match-up between two young managers who share a history and who hope to continue the hegemony of titles won by Mexican coaches in the past eight years.
Both José Manuel de la Torre, for Toluca, and Benjamín Galindo, with the Celestes, assumed their managerial post at the start of the season. They won a championship together as players with Chivas in 1986-1987 and played for Cruz Azul.
However, Galindo played a key role in the last Cruz Azul championship of 1997, while De la Torre has one championship to his name as a coach after leading Chivas to the title in the Apertura 2006.
Without a doubt, the the final features two of the most complete and dominant teams of the playoffs.
While both sides experienced irregular playing forms during the regular season, they achieved consistency at the right moment and perfectly executed it in the Liguilla.
In the earlier rounds, both teams proved the importance of a positive first leg result and in the return matches Cruz Azul demonstrated that they can win on the road and Toluca can effectively employ their home fortress.
The key in the series will be the midfield battle in a zone where both teams have great strengths.
The Cruz Azul tandem of Gerardo Torrado and Christian Riveros bring great ball circulation and leadership, but against Toluca will have limit the involvement of Antonio Naelson ‘Sinha’ in the match.
For their part, even playing at half-speed ‘Sinha’ fulfills his role of creative playmaker for Toluca and he can exploit even the most minimal of spaces to feed perfect passes to the offense. Also, the tireless work of midfield stalwart Martín Romagnoli has been crucial in the recovery of the ball.
While Toluca count with the leagues top goal scoarer, Cruz Azul’s offense appears to have awaken at the right moment and will put record-breaking goalkeeper Cristante to test to take an advantage from the first leg.
-- César García covers México for Goal.com.