Cruz Azul have been Liga MX runners up nine times, including three straight Liguilla final losses in 2008 and 2009 (they've also lost the CONCACAF Champions League title twice, in 2009 and 2010). Their last title was back in 1997, and before that, in 1980. They've been one of Mexico's biggest clubs in the modern era, with a squad built to compete for trophies, and they've come up empty since the turn of the century.
Things haven't gone much better for Club America. While Cruz Azul are a big club, they're an indisputable giant, and the length of time they've gone without a title is unacceptable to most fans and their board. They're one of the division's biggest spenders, and they have the stars to prove it. Until this season, they haven't even come close to delivering in Liguilla.
This weekend, a painful title drought will end for one team, while the other will likely head into the summer thinking about what changes need to be made. The first leg of their Liguilla final kicks off on Thursday night, at Estadio Azul.
How did we get here?
Cruz Azul made things more difficult than they should have been in the first round. A power failure led to a long period of stoppage time in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie against Morelia, and Mariano Pavone appeared to put away the tie in the 98th minute, making the score 4-1 to Cruz Azul. Morelia snatched an incredible late away goal, however, in the 118th minute. That set up a possible comeback in Morelia, and the Blue Machine were made to sweat out the second half against Monarcas. Rodrigo Salinas scored just before the end of the first half to pull his side within one goal, but Cruz Azul held on in the second half for the 4-3 aggregate victory.
They had less trouble with Santos Laguna, who, at this point in the season, might have been worn out from the fixture congestion that the CONCACAF Champions League provided. Cruz Azul absolutely destroyed Santos in Torreon, winning 3-0 at Estadio Corona. They scored the first two goals at Estadio Azul in the second leg, comfortably putting the tie away before Santos netted a consolation goal.
America had no trouble at all with Pumas, arguably the poorest side in Liguilla, in the quarterfinals. They won their away match 1-0, setting up an easy return leg, which they won 2-1. Their tie against Monterrey in the quarterfinal was much more interesting. Monterrey qualified for Liguilla in 9th place due to Queretaro finishing in a top-8 place. Relegated sides are not allowed to qualify for Liguilla, so Monterrey got in by default, then defeated local rivals Tigres in the first round.
While Monterrey stayed in the tie until the very end, America was always in control. They went up 2-1 in Monterrey before Aldo de Nigris scored an equalizer, keeping things interesting. At the Azteca, a similar match played out. America went up two goals before de Nigris pulled one back, but not soon enough for Monterrey to have a chance to force extra time.
America's lack of a center vs. Cruz Azul's double pivot - While Club America play in a 3-5-2 formation, that certainly doesn't tell the story of the way they play. They usually only play one true central midfielder, with the players that flank him doing a lot of drifting around. America has taken out one of their forwards and introduced a second true central midfielder on two occasions in the Liguilla, and might do it again on the road on Thursday night. Expecting Jesus Molina to take on Israel Castro and Gerardo Torrado by himself is a tough ask. If America don't play both of Molina and Juan Carlos Medina, expect Cruz Azul to dominate in the center.
Cruz Azul's forward pair vs. America's back three - When America beat Cruz Azul 3-0 in the regular season, Teofilo Gutierrez started on the bench while Cristian Gimenez started in the center. With Alejandro Vela suspended and Gutierrez in form, expect Gimenez to start on the wing and Gutierrez to partner Javier Orozco. Cruz Azul has been effective in this lineup, but America's three central defender lineup is a perfect natural matchup for the Cruz Azul attack.
Cruz Azul injuries and suspensions
Out: Mariano Pavone (injured), Alejandro Vela (suspended)
Club America injuries and suspensions
Out: Paul Aguilar (injured)
Match date/time: Thursday, 10 pm ET
Venue: Estadio Azul, Mexico City, Mexico
TV: ESPN2 (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), Azteca (Mexico)
Online: Watch ESPN