Brent Latham: Copa Libertadores only venue left for Cruz Azul to salvage season

Out of the playoffs, Cruz Azul needs some manner of success in the Copa LIbertadores to salvage a failed season.

It seemed a bit strange to see Cruz Azul back in action Tuesday night, so soon after the barn-burner in El Azteca on Sunday that eliminated La Maquina from the Mexican league.

International tournaments are a reward for success, but the Mexican representation in the Copa Libertadores this year has had anything but that. No need to mention the disastrous campaign offered by Chivas, tragic in the league and downright embarrassing in Copa Libertadores. Perhaps in retrospect, Tigres took the best way out, fielding a team of backups and failing to make even the knockout rounds of the Copa, but cruising into the liguilla at home.

Cruz Azul, for its part, has managed at least to keep its act together against South American opponents, even while it made a mess of the Clausura. That means two things at this point for La Maquina: no more Mexican soccer until August, and a very important pair of dates over the next week, the first on Tuesday night at Estadio Azul.

That could potentially end up being a very good combination for a team that never looked like it knew where to focus attention as the league season overlapped with trips to Paraguay and Brazil for Copa Libertadores group matches. So convoluted were La Maquina’s efforts to play two tournaments at once that their do-or-die match Sunday away to America, which would decide their league fate, saw Enrique Meza make several changes to what has been his ‘A’ lineup.

Those changes resulted in confusion in the back early on, leaving the team in a 2-0 hole in the opening minutes. Cruz Azul rallied back furiously, and only a legitimate but un-whistled penalty shout in the late going kept them out of the liguilla. But despite that late effort, and a generally improved second half of the Clausura, no playoffs is simply not an acceptable outcome at the Estadio Azul.

But no liguilla does make things that much simpler. Going into Tuesday night’s quick turnaround versus Libertad at home, there was no competition for the attention of Meza and Cruz Azul’s veterans.

Despite what had to be lingering heavy legs just 48 hours after putting everything on the line in El Azteca, Cruz Azul managed to open with determination, taking the lead and threatening more. As the second half wore on, the fatigue became more pronounced and Libertad managed to equalize. The resulting 1-1 draw at home in front of a good midweek crowd wasn’t what the Mexicans would have hoped, especially given the numerous chances that went begging. But the draw at least keeps Cruz Azul alive while the players rest and prepare for what they hope won’t be the last game of the season, in Asuncion next week.

Now, the squad at least has a week to organize and focus its concentration on the only tournament left on their docket. From a quick-fire league and Copa schedule that brought games in quick succession and far-flung venues, Cruz Azul now faces a knockout phase of the Copa Libertadores much longer and drawn out, potentially stretching more than two months for a maximum of eight matches.

Given the travel burden Libertadores presents for Mexican teams in season -- a trip from Mexico DF to Paraguay can take longer than travel to Europe, for example -- it seems infinitely easier to play just one game a week (imagine La Maquina attempting to play a liguilla match before heading to Paraguay). Cruz Azul will now hope it’s not too late to exercise that advantage. The return leg versus Libertad means everything to Meza and Cruz Azul’s veterans, as failure to advance is certain to result in changes, starting with the head coach.

If a rested Cruz Azul can step up its game and get out of Asuncion still alive in the Copa Libertadores it will be a giant step towards forgetting about the failed 2012 Clausura. A second elimination in 10 days, however, will not only cap a generally unacceptable campaign at the Estadio Azul, but raise new questions as to whether Mexican teams can hope to compete in both Libertadores and the league, given the particular burdens that Copa Libertadores travel and scheduling place on Mexico’s clubs.