CONCACAF Champions League: Final Preview

 

A rivalry as old as football itself: red vs blue (Photo: trespatadas.com)

A rivalry as old as football itself: red vs blue (Photo: trespatadas.com)

Two teams and two matches left to decide the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League winner. OTF’s Austin Fido gives his thoughts on what to expect…

Liga MX clubs have won the last eight CONCACAF club tournaments.  A Liga MX club will win CCL 2013-14.  Liga MX is the dominant league in this region, and Cruz Azul and Toluca have been the dominant teams in the Clausura 2014.

There is something fitting about having the two best teams in the region’s best league duke it out for the CCL title.

In Liga MX, Cruz Azul is currently top of the table, followed by Toluca.  In CCL, however, the advantage rests with Los Diablos Rojos – who will play the second leg of the final at home, thanks to the number one seed they carried out of the groups.

This pairing could easily meet again in a few weeks for the 2014 Clausura title, but this is the only chance either will have this year to qualify for the Club World Cup.

The seeding system that places Toluca above Cruz Azul in determining home advantage for this final has only been in place for two years (this is the second), but effectively this is the third consecutive final to be contested by the top seeds in the tournament.

Are you listening MLS?  The two teams with the best records in the group stage of CCL are in the final for the third year running.  Stop coasting.

But this isn’t about MLS’s lackadaisical approach to the tournament it claims to want to win more than any other.  This is about Cruz Azul and Toluca, two teams who have been the class of this competition since it started last summer.

Both qualified as also-rans: Toluca was the 2012 Apertura runner-up; Cruz Azul lost the 2013 Clausura final to America.  But they are the two best teams in the region when it really counts – for the CCL final. 

Image: imagenpoblana.com

Image: imagenpoblana.com

CRUZ AZUL

(Photo: sbnation.com)

If USSF produced a USMNT-branded mask, would Klinsi wear it? (Photo: sbnation.com)

How they got here:

The semifinals played out much as the quarterfinals had for Cruz Azul: lose the first leg on the road, then give the impudent opponent a thumping on home soil.  Against Xolos, La Maquina lost 1-0 in Tijuana, and had evened the score within three minutes of kicking off the second leg.  Shortly after half-time, another goal brought Cruz Azul the lead, and a place in the CCL final.

There are, however, some troubling questions raised by La Maquina‘s passage to the final.  First, the lose-on-the-road-but-win-at-home strategy works best if you have the advantage of playing the second leg at your place.  This is how Cruz Azul navigated both its knockout round victories to date, but there will be no home advantage in the final. 

La Maquina looks like a vulnerable traveler: just one of the last five road games in all competitions has been won.  Even Sporting Kansas City managed to beat Cruz Azul on its travels, and we saw the gulf in class between those two sides as soon as they faced each other in Mexico City. 

This isn’t to say Cruz Azul isn’t confident.  The team may be second seed in CCL, but has every right to consider itself favorite.

Nonetheless, the last time La Maquina was in a two-legged final was the 2013 Liga MX Clausura: Cruz Azul won the first leg at home, but lost the second leg in Azteca to America (in heartbreaking and unlikely fashion, no less).

The club has done a very thorough job of distancing itself from that particular trauma, but a CCL title would surely be the ideal way to banish the memory completely.

What they’ve been doing recently:

Former Philly Union man Michael Farfan celebrated his debut (off the bench for  the last ten minutes against Pachuca) for Cruz Azul with a stoppage-time equalizer in a match La Maquina seemed destined to lose.  

It was an important goal, insofar as it propped up Cruz Azul’s shaky league form – the club has just one win in its last four Liga MX outings.  But it also only has one loss in those matches, and it is still top of the league.

La Maquina has taken its foot off the gas a little in Liga MX – which is why Farfan, very much a reserve in the current squad, was able to have a run.  Don’t expect to see him in the CCL final: Cruz Azul rested many of its front line players in advance of the pending first leg with Toluca. 

Still, the reserve team outing against Pachuca doesn’t entirely dispel the notion that the current Liga MX front runners are fading a little.  This has been the best team in Mexico for several months now, but La Maquina is no longer in the nine-wins-out-of-eleven-games form which brought it such a commanding lead in this year’s Clausura.

Image: gazap.deviantart.com

Image: gazap.deviantart.com

One to watch: Guillermo Allison

The second leg of La Maquina‘s semifinal with Tijuana finished with Xolos launching a couple of desperate attacks on their host’s goal.  They only needed to score once to slip into the final on away goals.

It was not to be, but Tijuana did make a mark on the final nonetheless: Javier Gandolfi made a frustrated lunge at Cruz Azul ‘keeper Jose de Jesus Corona, and the two got into an unnecessary scuffle that got Corona booked.  At the final whistle, Corona let himself be drawn into a full blown brawl between the two teams which got him a red card. 

Both cards were issued in stoppage time.  It was very silly, and may have dampened Corona’s chances of making El Tri‘s World Cup squad.  What it has definitely done is robbed Cruz Azul of the services of its senior ‘keeper for the first leg of the  CCL final. 

This should see 23-year-old Guillermo Allison pick up the gloves.  He has just four first team appearances to his name, but Toluca will know him well.  Allison made his Liga MX debut on September 8th 2013, when Cruz Azul visited Toluca and pulled out a 2-1 win courtesy of an injury-time penalty save from the debutant ‘keeper.

Los Diablos Rojos haven’t lost at home since.  Corona will almost certainly be in goal when La Maquina heads to Toluca to try to repeat last year’s feat, but it will likely be Allison asked to keep the clean sheet his club will want out of the first leg in Estadio Azul.

EDIT: CONCACAF has hit Corona with a three-match ban for his part in the semifinal scuffling. Allison will be the man in goal for both legs of the final (assuming he can keep himself out of trouble).

TOLUCA

(Photo: diablogstwitteros.blogspot.com)

Take note Man Utd fans: if you’re going to call yourselves Red Devils, you have to put the effort in. (Photo: diablogstwitteros.blogspot.com)

How they got here:

Toluca had a very narrow escape from the quarterfinals, needing a penalty shoot-out to get past a San Jose Earthquakes team that had the better chances to win outright in both legs.

In the semifinals, Los Diablos Rojos gave a more assured performance, beating Alajuelense 3-0 on aggregate.  Los Manudos were not pushovers, but twice hitting the post and missing a penalty is not the sort of finishing that tends to win matches.

Toluca’s victories in both legs were not resounding, largely because the matches never really required a higher gear to be found. 

What they’ve been doing recently:

Resting.  With just a week between the second leg of the semifinal and the first leg of the final, Toluca sent out a completely different starting eleven to take on Leon at home in Liga MX this weekend from the team that started the concluding fixture of the semifinal against Alajuelense.

Fortuitously, Leon also had an eye on another competition – Copa Libertadores – so it was pretty much an all-reserve clash at Estadio Nemesio Diez on April 13th.  Toluca won the match, not that it counted for a great deal: Leon is basically mailing in its Liga MX campaign to try to do something in Copa Libertadores, and Toluca is very much focused on CCL right now.

Just a little closer, blue bunny...no one is gonna hurt you - much. (Photo: eluniversal.com.mx)

Just a little closer, blue bunny…no one is gonna hurt you – much. (Photo: eluniversal.com.mx)

One to watch: Isaac Brizuela

It’s been a hell of a year for Brizuela.  Just about 12 months ago, he made the surprising revelation that he had been born in the US – therefore declaring himself eligible to play for either El Tri or USMNT.

Call it keeping options open or a superlative piece of brinkmanship: either way, Brizuela was almost instantly drafted into Mexico’s plans for the Gold Cup.  It was a forgettable tournament for El Tri, but Brizuela is one of the few players to have made the step forward from fringe player under Chepo de la Torre to potential World Cup squad member for Miguel Herrera.

Mostly, this has been down to his club form: Toluca has been a very good team pretty much since Herrera took over El Tri, and Brizuela is one of his club’s better players.

For him, the CCL final is an opportunity to showcase his skills in a pressure situation. Herrera will be watching.  As Brizuela demonstrated against San Jose in the quarterfinals (he scored a rather wonderful goal – check out the video below), he can draw attention to himself for all the right reasons.

Incidentally, this match-up with Cruz Azul brings Brizuela back into contact with Luis Fernando  Tena, La Maquina‘s coach, but formerly of Chepo de la Torre’s national team set up.

Tena was part of the coaching staff that drafted Brizuela into the 2013 Gold Cup squad. Now he can judge for himself just how far the 23-year-old has come this season.

1st Leg: Tuesday, April 15th – @ Cruz Azul (7:00 pm CST)

2nd Leg: Wednesday, April 23rd – @ Toluca (7:00 pm CST)

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Austin Fido is OTF’s CONCACAF editor. He really has no idea what he will do when CCL is over. Hit him up @canetop with suggestions.

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