Is there time for grandes Cruz Azul and Chivas to get in gear?
This isn't in the script for "Cruzazuleando."
The historic Mexico City team has, in recent years, found its noun verbed. It's a word meaning to fail when every indication is that you will succeed, inspired by Cruz Azul's near misses in Liga MX since the turn of the century.
This tournament, the first under Pedro Caixinha, there was no flying high before the inevitable fall. Cruz Azul just seemed bad. How can you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if you never even are in the same cage with victory?
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This weekend changed things for La Maquina, and for another of Mexico's struggling "grandes," the four biggest and historically most successful clubs. Cruz Azul thrashed Pachuca 5-0 to earn its second win of the season. Chivas also added win number two, getting a 1-0 road victory over Lobos BUAP.
Now both teams have 11 points with identical 2-4-5 records, four points out of the final playoff position. With six weeks to play, everyone is wondering if it's too little, too late or if the once-powerful clubs can make a push and extend their seasons.
The answer probably is yes. Last week, we looked at how a string of draws from Chivas was better than the defeats they opened the season with but still not good enough to turn things around. A win over Lobos is nice, but the problem of the Guadalajara side failing to win at home for months on end still hasn't been resolved. Add in the fact that three of their last six matches will be against teams currently in the playoff positions and it looks like a tall mountain to climb for Chivas.
Cruz Azul's path is similar. Three would-be playoff teams are in the way (both face Tigres and Morelia), including trips to the Estadio Azteca to take on America and to the Volcan to meet Tigres. Caixinha didn't seem too concerned about whether his team has turned things around thanks to the big win, saying he was going to go home, eat dinner and do the "same thing we've done since January." Sure enough, he was spotted scouting upcoming opponent Pumas the next day.
He also gave credit to "mental coaching," getting his team in the right mindset and later having them finish their chances. They certainly were lethal Saturday, with every member of the attacking four scoring at least once. Still, the win broke a six-match winless streak in all competitions and an eight-game skid in league play. Cruz Azul's last win came against Chivas, who snapped a bad run of their own. It was seven in a row without getting three points for Chivas before the weekend victory.
That stuff doesn't just go away because of one win. Chivas now have the second leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against the Seattle Sounders, another game that will weigh heavy in the mind of the players should they fail to get a result.
"It's a happy feeling. I think we were missing a victory, the players gave everything and I'm always really grateful to them. It was really important to get the three points, keeping in mind that we have a 'final' on Wednesday," Chivas manager Matias Almeyda said. "This is obviously a prize for the effort, but obviously have to keep going. We're very far back in the tournament, so the only way forward is working and trying to advance."
Each grande is suffering from some of the same symptoms. There is talent in the teams, but in today's market both have found it tough to build real depth. Players who may have gone to Chivas or Cruz Azul in the past now are seduced by another grande, like America, that is spending bigger, or by Tigres and Monterrey in the north. La Maquina added pieces in the offseason, with Caixinha bringing in Walter Montoya and Carlos Pena, but Montoya just netted his first goal in Mexico and Pena has been sidelined by injuries.
Even if they're struggling to compete for a title (and do remember that Chivas won the league and the cup less than a year ago), the playoffs are a reasonable expectation for this club every year. That goal is slipping away, even with the teams' victories Saturday. The wins were nice, but neither club has showed it can do anything consistently different than what it has been doing.
Cruz Azul fans might take a "cruzazuelear" this tournament. Chivas fans could perhaps stomach a near-miss with success in another tournament. At least then the teams would've turned things around. It's on them to make sure the positive steps taken Saturday aren't immediately followed by a pair of steps back, as has been the case in the teams' recent history.