When Hector Mancilla pulled away from his marker to head in the opener for Morelia in just the second minute of Thursday’s playoff quarterfinal first leg, Cruz Azul fans likely slumped in their seats and took a deep, knowing breath.
Fans of La Maquina have long had their hopes built up about their title chances only for the playoffs to arrive and demolish the dream of winning a first title since 1997.
But the reaction from Cruz Azul – to comeback from the early setback and win 4-2 – is clear evidence that the Copa MX win on April 10 has lifted some pressure off the players, who are now peaking at exactly the right time this Clausura. Since the cup triumph, Cruz Azul has won five consecutive games, scoring 17 times and leaking just three goals.
Teofilo Gutierrez started slowly in Mexico, but has grown weekly, Pablo Barrera is back to his best, Christian Gimenez is pulling the strings and Gerardo Torrado is in his best form for years. There are also options off the bench and goalkeeper Jesus Corona gives assurance at the back.
TV replays of Barrera celebrating Cruz Azul’s fourth with the ball-boys highlighted a refreshing attitude from a Pumas youth product that seems, judging by players’ body language, to be flowing through the squad.
In sum, Cruz Azul is the team to watch this Liguilla.
Over in the south of Mexico City, none of the pressure that was predicted – and some hoped – to weigh heavily on Club America was apparent as it took to the field against Pumas on Wednesday.
The 1-0 victory in the Estadio Olimpico set the Aguilas up nicely for Saturday’s second leg in the Azteca and was more evidence that the team is mentally prepared to win big games. It was the fourth consecutive victory against Pumas and follows on from regular season wins against main rivals Chivas, Cruz Azul, as well as Pumas.
The only goal, a long pass taken down beautifully by Christian Benitez and squared inside to Raul Jimenez, was another reminder of the edge in quality in the final third that America has compared to most teams in the Liga MX.
Pumas huffed and puffed, but America never looked inferior.
It is difficult to see Pumas netting the minimum two goals they need to advance on Saturday, even if America defender Diego Reyes will be missing.
In northern Mexico, Monterrey took a 1-0 home victory in the Clasico Regio against Tigres on Wednesday.
Victor Manuel Vucetich’s decision to start Hiram Mier at right back with Severo Meza in central midfield and Walter Ayovi on the left was a stroke of genius and upset Tigres’ rhythm.
Tigres will provide a stern test in the second leg in the Estadio Universitario, but Vucetich is the key. He was won 13 of the 14 finals he has coached in and has only lost once against Tigres in 10 games during his spell at the club. Rayados can play five at the back, with two defensive-minded midfielders and still have the goal threat that Humberto Suazo can provide almost single-handedly.
Vucetich is likely to have some tricks up his sleeve for Saturday’s return game, whereas Tigres coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti appears to struggle to find a plan B when his team needs to chase the game.
The only doubt about Monterrey seems to be that the team visibly tired late in the second half as Tigres applied pressure. It shouldn’t be a surprise after their victorious CONCACAF Champions League campaign, but it could be a factor if Tigres are leading 1-0 with 20 minutes to on Saturday.
Finally, Santos Laguna and Atlas played out a scoreless draw, which wasn’t a surprise considering the two teams came into the game with the best defensive records from the regular season. But how it ended 0-0 after 90 minutes was difficult to fathom given the amount of chances Darwin Quintero alone squandered. It sets up the second leg nicely in front of what will be a packed Estadio Jalisco.
Atlas will need to improve defensively. It seemed obvious that Santos Laguna coach Pedro Caixinha was using his fastest players through the center of the offense to take advantage of the lack of pace of Leandro Cufre.
In the return leg, Guerreros striker Oribe Peralta should be back and he’s unlikely to be so forgiving if Atlas give up so many opportunities on Sunday.
On the other hand, Atlas will have intense fan support from a public that haven’t witnessed their team play at home in the playoffs since 2007. Most wouldn’t have been born when the Rojinegros won its only championship in 1951, so to say there is a hunger in the red-and-black half of Guadalajara would be an understatement.
On the field, getting Omar Bravo fit will be key, as well as giving the ball as much as possible to Isaac Brizuela, who was by far Atlas’ most dangerous player on Thursday.
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