South American Football

Mexican wave time in CONCACAF again

cruz azul (450x370)So who are Cruz Azul? They’re only the first club to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco later this year. Cruz Azul this week won the CONCACAF Champions League, beating fellow Mexicans Toluca.

Mexican clubs have dominated the CONCACAF Champions League in recent years – Cruz Azul’s win was the ninth successive year that a Mexican club has won the title and five out of the last six years have been all-Mexican finals. But then, when your opponents are from the US, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and all, is it any wonder? Not surprisingly, CONCACAF is considered the weakest of FIFA’s regions. But in an age where you could be forgiven for assuming that club football begins and ends in Europe, with perhaps a little smattering of Brazil and Argentina, it’s worth giving some puff to the Mexicans.

Mexican football should be on a bit of a high, however. They won the Olympic gold medal in 2012 and they will line-up in the World Cup alongside Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon. Of the current Mexican squad, only two Cruz Azul players may feature: defender Rogelio Chavez and midfielder Marco Fabian. Others such as veteran goalkeeper Jesus Corona, defenders Alejandro Castro and Gerardo Flores, and the midfield trio of Torrado, Gimenez and Barrera, will be hoping to get into contention for Brazil.

Cruz Azul come from Mexico City and were founded by the Cementos Azul company in 1927. Their players were mostly cement workers and the link with that company still exists in the form of sponsorship. One of a number of nicknames for the club is “Cementeros” in recognition of its roots.

Cruz Azul have certainly cemented their place in CONCACAF Champions League history. Their 2014 triumph was their sixth in all in the competition, the last one 17 years ago. They were runners-up in both 2009 and 2010. Their golden period in the competition was in the late 1960s-early 1970s, when they won three consecutive titles. During that period, they had monolithic defender Gustavo Pena in their ranks, who captained Mexico in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups.

Cruz Azul are well supported. In 2013, they attracted 25,000 per game to Estadio Azul. But their stadium has the world’s biggest bullring as its neighbour, Plaza de Toros. The Estadio Azul hosted the first leg of the Champions League with Toluca. The game ended goalless, but Cruz Azul had the better of things. Nevertheless, the draw sent Toluca home as favourites to win the competition.

stadium (450x284)Ironically, given that Cruz Azul had demonstrated excellent home form throughout the Champions League campaign, the final was won on away goals. Throughout the competition, which Cruz Azul qualified for due to finishing runners-up in the Mexican League’s Clausura session in 2012-13 (the league has two competitions, Apertura, which runs in the summer, and Clausura, which takes place in Winter).

The Champions League run started well for Cruz Azul in August against Herediano of Costa Rica. The 3-0 win was watched by only 3,000 people. They followed that up with 2-1 win against Valencia in Haiti. At home, they beat Valencia 3-0, thanks to hat-trick from Cameroon striker Achille Emana, and they completed their 100% group stage record with a 2-1 win in Costa Rica. With such a strong record, they were seeded second for the next phase.

US side Sporting Kansas City beat Cruz 1-0 in the quarter-final first leg, but they came back in the second leg to win 5-1 with the Argentine Mariano Pavone scoring a treble. They also retrieved a 1-0 first-leg deficit in the semi-finals against another Mexican side, Tijuana, winning 2-0 at home to clinch a 2-1 aggregate success and a place in the final.

In the second leg of the final, Cruz Azul opened positively and they took the lead in the first half through the flamboyant and bandana-wearing Pavone. Although an Argentine international, Pavone hasn’t quite made it at the top level, although he played briefly for River Plate in his homeland and Real Betis of Spain. He was named player of the tournament.

But Cruz Azul had to thank goalkeeper Corona for keeping them in the game, particularly a spectacular save in the closing stages. Corona almost missed the final owing to a suspension that was lifted at the last minute. Toluca levelled in the second half with a fine strike from Benitez and it was an agonising finish for the Cruz fans. Emotions ran high at the final whistle, tears on and off the pitch!

They still have one league game to play this weekend and its likely to be cracker. Cruz Azul are top of the Clausura and they are hosting third-placed Pumas UNAM. Breathing down their neck in second place, and two points behind are….Toluca. It all sounds a bit Real-Barca in Mexico!

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