Mexican Primera Previews, Apertura 2011, Team By Team: Cruz Azul

SANDY UT - SEPTEMBER 19: Javier Orozco #27 of Cruz Azul gets the ball past goalie Kyle Reynish #24 and Rauwshan McKenzie #30 of Real Salt Lake but misses the shot on goal during the second half of an CONCACAF soccer game October 19 2010 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Utah. Real Salt Lake beat Cruz Azul 3-1. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

With a full and healthy roster, Cruz Azul are sure contenders for the title in Mexico. The top end talent in their squad is second to none, their depth is solid, and their veterans are supplemented by up and coming young players. They have a number of Mexican national team players, and with the exception of one notable hiccup in the 2010 Clausura, the Blue Machine has been a consistent force in the league. 

However, this season will throw some curveballs at Cruz Azul, and they have some obstacles to navigate to secure a Liguilla place. Thanks to a brawl between Cruz Azul and Monarcas Morelia in the Liguilla of the 2011 Clausura, both Christian 'Chaco' Gimenenz and Jose de Jesus Corona are suspended for the first six games of the season. As good and as important as Gerardo Torrado is to Cruz Azul, these are arguably the Blue Machine's two most important figures, and missing them for six games will be absolutely massive.

Additionally, coach Enrique Meza will be serving a touchline ban for the first game of the season, while promising young defender/winger Nestor Araujo will miss the beginning of the season due to his participation in the 2011 FIFA Under-20 World Cup. Cruz Azul have the team to overcome these obstacles, but it won't be easy.

Meza has done well to cut out some older players and dead wood from the squad, sending Marcelo Palau and Gonzalo Pineda on to greener pastures. Horacio Cervantes, Rogelio Chavez, and Isaac Romo, all of whom were disappointing last year, have gone out on loan. A number of players who were out on loan last season, such as Joel Huiqui and Jaime Lozano, are again out on loan.

Cruz Azul's biggest summer pickup was Israel Castro, who left a UNAM Pumas team who is undergoing a significant youth movement. He'll be a massive upgrade over Palau and Pineda, and the fans of the Blue Machine will be pleased to see the starting center of midfield for El Tri play as the starting central midfield for Cruz Azul as well. 

Talented striker Wason Renteria was also set to join the side, but his transfer was cancelled after he failed a medical. While this might be bad news for Cruz Azul, it's very good news for striker Javier Orozco, who will get a chance to prove that he is worthy of regular playing time.

While Gimenez is out, it seems like Cruz Azul will go with a 4-4-2 formation instead of a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Orozco likely stepping in as a second striker in place of the No. 10 Gimenez. He's formed a good partnership with Emmanuel Villa on the few occasions that they have played together in competitive matches, and if Orozco lives up to his potential, Meza might have to make some very tough selection decisions when Gimenez returns from suspension.

Defense has been Cruz Azul's Achilles heel in recent years and this year will probably be no different, especially with Corona out for the first six games. Chilean international defender Waldo Ponce was supposed to be a big signing and a major upgrade for Meza's boys, but he was slightly disappointing in his first tournament with Cruz Azul.

He'll be joined in defense by Fausto Pinto and Julio Cesar Dominguez, Cruz Azul's only two consistent performers at the back. Nestor Araujo and Alejandro Castro will be asked to step up their games, while both Jair Pereira and Manuel Mariaca make the step up from the second team, Cruz Azul Hidalgo.

With Gimenez out, the first choice starting wingers in a 4-4-2 setup will likely be Hugo Droguett and Cesar Villaluz. Drougett is a consistent performer, while Villaluz has been an up and down player in his young career. The absence of Gimenez will give him a chance to prove that he has what it takes to be first choice week in and week out. Though he's played a number of games for Cruz Azul and for Mexico, these six weeks could very well be the most important time period in Villaluz's career.

Javier Aquino will be breathing down the necks of both Drougett and Villaluz, though he will likely start the season as a super sub. A winger capable of playing on either side, Aquino will be gunning for a first team place all season. These three players should have a healthy competition going for playing time all year, and Meza will likely select whoever is in the best form and not play favorites. Alejandro Vela, a left winger, is also a wild card who could potentially steal some time.

Key Player

Gerardo Torrado - This might have been debatable with a full team, but while Gimenez and Corona are out, the captain needs to be the leader of the team.

Potential Breakout Star

Cesar Villaluz - With over 100 first team games and a handful of Mexico caps under his belt, Villaluz is not an unknown player. However, he has been a slight disappointment so far in his career, and he should finally get a chance to live up to his former wonderkid status.

Prediction

Liguilla - Though they will be handicapped by suspensions and other absences, Cruz Azul are simply too talented not to finish in the top eight.

This is the eighteenth and final preview in our series of Mexican Primera team previews. Check out the earlier previews of Club Tijuana XolosQueretaro FCJaguares de ChiapasEstudiantes TecosClub AtlasPuebla FCAtlante FC,San LuisUANL TigresChivas GuadalajaraPachucaSantos LagunaClub AmericaPumas UNAMMonarcas MoreliaToluca, and Monterrey.

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