Cruz Azul will have get by without captain and influential midfielder Gerardo Torrado. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
The late Wednesday game in the Mexican Liguilla will see Atlante, one of the hottest teams in Mexico, take the pitch at the Estadio Azul against a flagging Cruz Azul side. While only one point separates the two sides in the overall table, Atlante is unbeaten in its last five league matches, while Cruz Azul has picked up only two points from its final three games. In fact, Atlante has only lost two games since the beginning of March, to the two best teams in the league, Pumas and UANL Tigres.
The loss against Pumas represents Atlante's only home loss of the Clausura, and they will be considered favorites heading into the series against Cruz Azul, a team Atlante soundly defeated 3-0 when it visited Cancún in the second round of the Apertura. Christian 'Hobbit' Bermudez and Giancarlo Maldonado were on target then to complement a Waldo Ponce own goal, and the attacking pair will be back once more. The home side, however, will be bolstered by their positive record against Atlante at their home ground, not having lost in any of their last four encounters. The Máquina Celeste also won the most recent playoff series between the two, posting a 4-2 aggregate victory in the semifinals of the 2008 Apertura.
If Cruz Azul is to get past Atlante on its quest for a first title in 13 years, they will have to do so without the services of speedy winger Hugo Droguett and influential midfielder Gerardo Torrado, both of whom will be missing out after sustaining injuries in April. Also missing out will be backup striker Alejandro Vela. Atlante, meanwhile, will only be missing the services of former Houston Dynamo man Luis Ángel Landín, though manager Miguel Herrera will also miss out, as he serves the final game of a three game ban incurred for protesting refereeing decisions and insulting match officials.
Atlante's forward line will be led by the aforementioned Bermudez, with the tiny 24-year-old midfielder having played his way into Mexico's Gold Cup squad after a career season. Despite the fact that he does not always play up top, more often slotting in on the left wing, or as somewhat of a support striker, Bermudez leads Atlante with nine goals and four assists in the Clausura. Furthermore, his pace and ability to play in between the lines will cause headaches for Cruz Azul's defense, especially with Torrado absent.
Supporting Bermudez up top, will be former Chivas USA striker Giancarlo Maldonado and veteran Mexico international Francisco Fonseca. While the pair has not been as prolific as Bermudez, they have nonetheless combined for another nine goals in Atlante's Clausura campaign. Behind its dangerous attacking trio, Herrera has stitched together a flexible three to five man backline that features a difficult to beat combination of pace and aerial ability, both Diego Ordaz and Luis Venegas are comfortable building out of the back and provide the foundation for Atlante's entertaining style of play. The two can also track faster strikers, while former Paraguay U20 international Líder Mármol's provides an aerial threat.
In order to break through Atlante's back line, Cruz Azul will need their forward pairing of Emmanuel Villa and Christian Giménez to rediscover their early season form. While both have had fine seasons, Villa is the only Cruz Azul player to have scored in the last three games, a late equalizer against Chivas. Even without Droguett and Torrado, Cruz Azul has a more than capable team, with Gonzalo Pineda and Marcelo Palau coming in to fill the central midfield gaps, and talented young wingers César Villaluz and Javier Aquino providing quick, incisive play up the flanks.
With the first leg at home, the onus will be on Cruz Azul to bring an advantage with them to Cancún, where they have not won in their last four games. With the second leg at home and an intelligent team, Atlante can afford to be a little more cautious than usual, but neither will they shy away from an attacking opportunity should one arise. An away goal could be vital for the visitors, and should they pick up one or two, certainly a possibility, it would be hard to see Cruz Azul progressing.
The game kicks off at 10 PM EDT and can be seen in the United States on Azteca America.
Probable Cruz Azul lineup (4-4-2): Corona; Domínguez, Ponce, Araujo, Pinto; Villaluz, Palau, Pineda, Aquino; Giménez, Villa
Probable Atlante lineup (3-5-2): M. Muñoz; Ordaz, Venegas, Mármol; Diego, A. Muñoz, Navarro, Bermúdez, Guerrero; Maldonado, Fonseca