CONCACAF Champions League 2013-14: Cruz Azul beats history and Toluca
CONCACAF Champions League is over. Cruz Azul are your regional champions for 2013-14. OTF’s Austin Fido looks back at the decisive second leg of the final…
Football is a cruel sport sometimes. Toluca did everything right in this year’s CONCACAF Champions League: won every group stage match; picked up the top seed for the knockout rounds; rode home advantage all the way to the final; walked out of Estadio Azul with a 0-0 draw and the clear advantage heading into the decisive match of the tournament; didn’t lose that match.
But Los Diablos Rojos also neglected to actually beat Cruz Azul, and beating your opponent in the final is the simplest way to win CCL. Failure to attend to such details leaves a team exposed to the tournament’s finer details – such as the away-goals tiebreaker, which is what doomed Toluca on this occasion.
The 1-1 result in the second leg was sufficient for Cruz Azul to regain sole possession of a title it has been sharing with Club America since Las Aguilas won their fifth CONCACAF regional title in 2006. La Maquina‘s victory in this tournament hands the club its sixth CONCACAF club championship crown: its first major trophy since the 1997 Liga MX Invierno tournament and the CONCACAF Champion’s Cup of the same year.
Seventeen years is a long time to wait to win something big (as a New York Red Bulls fan, I say this with some authority), but Cruz Azul’s supporters will know there was a 17-year gap between their last two Liga MX titles (1979-80 and 1997), and will hope this CCL victory signals the end of a frustrating era of near misses. Until this final, La Maquina had picked up eight major runners-up medals: five in Liga MX, two in CCL, and one in Copa Libertadores.
But Cruz Azul is a bridesmaid no more. And the club is a deserving winner – not losing in Toluca is a significant achievement in any competition (ask San Jose Earthquakes if you don’t believe me).
For Los Diablos Rojos, there is the unusual consolation of not being the first team to run through an entire regional tournament undefeated and lose to Cruz Azul, without actually losing a game. Necaxa managed the same trick in 1996.
The statistics for this match suggest a lopsided encounter in which the visitors clung on against the odds: Toluca had more than 60% of possession. In reality, it was an even encounter.
Much like the first leg, both sides relied heavily on their ‘keepers. The abiding memory of this match might be Jose de Jesus Corona’s remarkable 94th minute parry: Miguel Ponce’s shot clipped Luis Perea’s head on the way toward goal, causing the sort of shift in trajectory which often fools a goalkeeper. Corona made the adjustment to keep the ball out of the net.
It was a desperation save, and the rebound fell to Pablo Velazquez, but the big man couldn’t control the ball any better than Corona, and he skewed his last – and best – chance wide.
Corona wasn’t supposed to be playing this game. He was reprieved by a CONCACAF decision every bit as sudden and apparently arbitrary as the original announcement that he had been suspended for three games for his part in the scuffle that concluded Cruz Azul’s semifinal win over Tijuana.
It is impossible to say whether back-up ‘keeper Guillermo Allison would have performed as well as Corona in this game. All that can be said with confidence is La Maquina‘s ‘keeper must surely be the man of this match. Not just for his save at the death, but also for his 73rd minute stop, again off Velazquez.
In the end, the difference between the two teams was perhaps the difference between Corona and Velazquez: the Cruz Azul ‘keeper was at the top of his game; the Toluca target man was not.
Still, at the other end of the field, Alfredo Talavera was no less busy. La Maquina made excellent work of turning a little possession into a lot of shots on goal. Cruz Azul matched Toluca’s shots-on-target total (each team had five for the match), and Talavera’s 88th minute block of Chaco Gimenez’s goal-bound free kick was merely his most prominent effort.
Of course, both ‘keepers were beaten during this match. La Maquina scored first, in the 41st minute, off an astute and technically superior sequence: Joao Rojas switched play from right to left, lobbing a cross over the area to Marco Fabian, who one-timed a cross into the six yard box, which Mariano Pavone volleyed in at the far post. It was one of the prettier goals of the tournament.
As was Toluca’s riposte. You could say Edgar Benitez’s goal should never have been allowed – not because he looked offside, but because a ‘keeper drawing the sort of praise thrown around in the preceding paragraphs of this piece shouldn’t get beaten at his near post.
But this analysis would be to deny the velocity and trajectory of Benitez’s shot. It rose so quickly, Corona was beaten because he dived to cover the near post – it looked as though the ball actually crossed the goal line closer to space Corona had previously occupied.
This match was not the classic we got last year. Unlike Monterrey’s wonderful, reckless pursuit of late goals, Toluca remained patient and controlled (at least in comparison to Los Rayados).
Still, it was a quality game of football. Not as enthralling as the Toluca-San Jose quarterfinal perhaps, but the ‘Quakes approach to soccer is better suited to the all-or-nothing stakes of knockout tournaments than most.
The result sends Cruz Azul into this December’s Club World Cup. There is an off-season and an Apertura tournament to negotiate before La Maquina gets to carry CONCACAF’s banner into FIFA’s showpiece club competition.
It is to be hoped our region’s most successful continental championship winner does us proud.
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OTF’s Concacaf and USMNT editor Austin Fido is on Twitter @canetop.