MEXICO CITY – “Even God wanted to watch this game.”
That's what the Cruz Azul fan next to me said, as the rain ceased to fall on the Estadio Azul after about 10 minutes of play. It was, quite frankly, not the best spectacle, but one that allows both Cruz Azul and América fans to dream about a potential league championship next weekend.
Christian Gimenez improbably rose above América defenders to slam home a first-half goal, the one bit of excitement near the goals in a tentative, conservative 90 minutes that evoked the proverbial first round between heavyweights: sizing each other up, not really willing to risk too much when punching across the ring.
With the more than 30,000 fans witnessing the match in central Mexico City, the main impression was that Cruz Azul failed to grasp an opportunity that could have sealed their first league title in 16 years right then and there. Then again, América failed to show the consistency that had been their hallmark over the Clausura 2013 tournament.
A mucky, boring 90 minutes of play gave La Maquina a 1-0 lead going into the definitive match at the Estadio Azteca, a stadium that will surely host 110,000 screaming fans, most of whom will be supporting a Club America comeback and a repeat of 2005's ravishing side that destroyed a UAG side that conceded six goals in 90 minutes of classic America dominance.
America is that team you love to hate. The Yankees of Mexican football. The Lakers. The Patriots. That team that finds a way to win. The irrepressible, unflappable squad of players that seems to weasel its way into the finals and win no matter what the obstacle. Cruz Azul, on the other hand, despite their eight league titles and status as a “big” team within the Mexican club world, is the plucky underdog.
Their self-hatred is almost comical. Having gone 16 years without a league title, they've become a caricature, anticipating implosions no matter what the situation. This is a team that has made the Copa Libertadores final, the CONCACAF Champions League final and a myriad of league finals without the appropriate reward.
When Cruz Azul defeated Atlante (in penalties) to take home the Copa MX title a month ago, a psychological shift was apparent. A long winning streak appeared without notice, and the team displayed a frightening, unsettling side that the rest of the Liga MX hadn't seen since the mid-1990s: confidence.
On paper, Cruz Azul has one of the best teams in the league. Teo Gutierrez is a Colombian international. Jesus Corona is one of Mexico's top goalkeepers. Mariano Pavone is among the country's best goal scoring threats. Pablo Barrera is a hated figure around CONCACAF. Gerardo Flores is up and coming as one of the country's best wing backs. On paper, everyone should very well fear Cruz Azul.
Except they don't. Sixteen years have taken a toll. And even if América's eight trophyless years are nothing to bark about, confidence has never really abandoned the team. Long known as a club that would ruthlessly spend its way to success, the club boasts the country's most expensive player, Ecuador striker Christian Benitez, valued at over 10 million dollars.
Thus, the win at the Azul is certainly gratifying for Cruz Azul fans, but in no means is it a final blow to América's title hopes. On Sunday, Cruz Azul will face a team that has lost only once at home in the last six months. A team that finds a way, no matter what. The Azul will face their last test towards a championship that would soothe suffering fans and create an ambiance of pure calm for millions of fans who went to bed on Thursday night with a false sense of confidence, anticipating their team will screw up no matter what the advantage.
Two local rivals, searching for a league title that cannot be denied to suffering fan bases. Weather won't be a factor. Not at all, especially if God wants to watch the proceedings in Mexico's capital.
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