Tom Marshall: Pressure on as Mexico City rivals clash in promising Liga MX final

Two Mexico City rivals - Club America and Cruz Azul - meet in the biggest Liga MX final since 2004.
America coach Miguel Herrera hops, skips, jumps, shouts and is regularly sent off from the bench by officials. His Cruz Azul counterpart Guillermo Vazquez is a portrait of calmness.

The two couldn’t be much different as personalities, but are actually good friends from their playing days together at Neza. Because of that, the press build-up to Thursday’s Liga MX final first leg has been less explosive than it otherwise would have been.

But don’t be under any illusions about how desperate each is to win the Clausura title, with both “big four” institutions suffering from droughts in recent seasons.

At most clubs, Herrera would already be revered as a successful coach that has taken a club from 17th place in the league to a Liga MX final in the space of 18 months. The season before he took over, the team won three of the 17 regular season games and leaked a total of 31 goals. This season, Herrera’s side finished second and netted 30 times.

But at las Aguilas, only a title can make 100 percent sure that Herrera will be in his job next season -- such is the pressure that the club is under to lift its first title since 2005 and only its third since 1999. The added bonus for America is that victory would assure the Mexico City club of equaling Chivas on a total of 11 titles.

“Yes, we’ve thought about the Chivas thing, but in our minds are on getting the win and lifting the trophy, whether it be the first or the 30th,” said Herrera in his press conference Wednesday.

Cruz Azul’s situation is, if anything, even more urgent. Opposition fans label the team the “eternal runner-up.” La Maquina has only one title since 1980, but is still Mexico’s third most popular club and boasts fans in all corners of the country.

The whole atmosphere around the game has sparked massive interest in Mexico, with El Economista publishing a study that suggests an expected TV audience of 51 million will watch the second leg of the final in the Azteca on Sunday. The tickets for both legs are already sold out.

It’s the biggest final the Liga MX has seen since 2004 when Pumas and Chivas met, but it’s not just the need to win and the size of the clubs that is producing the hype.

On the field, both teams come into the final in form and scoring goals. America has lost just once in its last 13 league games. Cruz Azul has won all except one of its last nine Liga MX matches.

For America, Christian Benitez remains the key figure. He has five goals in his last three. A similar performance in the upcoming final and he can stake his claim as an America legend, after three consecutive scoring titles.

Whether he stays after the final is another matter altogether, with rumors linking the Ecuadoran with a move to Atletico Madrid and interest also arriving from clubs in the Bundesliga. With 31 goals in 40 matches over the last two seasons, it’s not difficult to see why.

At Cruz Azul, it’s been an overall improvement since that April 10 Copa MX victory that breathed confidence into the squad. It’s worth remembering that Vazquez’s job was on the line beforehand, with supporters demanding the board get rid of him.

Though Pablo Barrera, Gerardo Torrado, Gerardo Flores and many others have stepped up for Cruz Azul, the player to watch is Christian ‘Chaco’ Gimenez. Chaco has the ability to both score and create and has been reaching the sort of form where he is controlling games for La Maquina.

If the start of the week was something of a bad advert for the Liga MX, with teams seemingly arbitrarily moving locations, the two legs of the final promise to be a reminder of the positive side of the Mexican game, with packed stadiums, intense atmospheres and two top teams.

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