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Pumas UNAM Vs. Cruz Azul, 2011 Apertura: Preview

The last time Pumas took the field against Cruz Azul, los felinos proved they were championship material. Seven months ago, in the third game of the Clausura 2011 season, Pumas traveled the four miles north to Estadio Azul and proceeded to fall behind 0-2 at the halftime break. Rather than folding in a difficult match against a bitter intra-city rival, Pumas instead clearly demonstrated over the game’s final 45 minutes that they were a team to be reckoned with. Pumas unleashed three unanswered goals in the second half to briefly take the lead, shocking the Azul supporters on hand. In the end, Cruz Azul got a goal back late and the match ended in a 3-3 draw. More important than the final scoreline, though, was the strength and determination shown by Pumas as they battled back on the road. Pumas would go on to win six of their next seven matches, and eventually finished the Clausura season by raising the championship trophy.

Fast forward to the current season, where both Pumas and Cruz Azul are again near the top of the league table -- the two teams are tied on points behind only Chivas in the Primera standings. Not only does Sunday’s match carry the usual rivalry baggage, but the winner also has a shot at taking over the top spot in the league (depending on how Chivas fares on Saturday against San Luis).

In many ways, the real season starts this weekend for Cruz Azul. Sunday's match against Pumas marks the first time that Christian Gimenez and Jesus Corona will be eligible to take the field this season. The two players just completed six-game suspensions for their part in a late-game brawl with Morelia in the Liguilla semifinals last season. It must be said, though, that Cruz Azul has fared fairly well without their playmaker and starting goalkeeper. It hasn’t always been pretty, but even without these two key players la Maquina has dropped just one match, and has won all three of their games at home. Sunday's match will be on the road, in the Olympic fortress at Ciudad Universitaria. Always a difficult environment, this will be a tough place for Chaco Gimenez and Corona to make their return.

On Sunday, Pumas will be looking to right the ship a bit. Last weekend Pumas dropped their first match of the season, a 2-1 loss to Puebla that saw UNAM concede multiple goals for the first time in eleven league games (dating back to last season). While the team's defense, anchored by Dario Veron and Marco Palacios, has been outstanding, the offense has a stumbled along over the first third of the season. Pumas have struggled to put the ball in the net, scoring only seven goals in the first six matches (of teams that have played six games, only Atlas has scored less). Finding a consistent scorer has certainly been a challenge. Young striker Eduardo Herrera has been solid in spots and leads the team with two goals. But veteran Martin Bravo hasn't found his legs yet, and Juan Carlos Cacho continues to battle injuries. To make matters worse, Pumas will also be without the injured Paco Palencia on Sunday. It won’t be easy, but what better way to turn things around on offense than pouring it on at home against a rival?

Cruz Azul may also have their own issues to deal with on offense. While Chaco Gimenez’s return will be a huge boost to the team’s attack, striker Emanuel Villa will not play. Villa will be serving his own suspension on Sunday, due to a red card in last week's win over Tijuana. That may open the door for another start for Edixon Perea, who scored his first goal in the Mexican Primera last week against the Xolos.

No matter who takes the field for Cruz Azul, the team will be looking for a revenge win. Not only did Pumas embarrass them at home with last season's comeback, but the Azul players and fans still have a bad taste in their mouth dating back to the Apertura 2010 playoffs. That season one year ago, Cruz Azul finished as the top regular season team, but was unceremoniously dispatched by #8-seeded Pumas in the first round of the Liguilla. Sunday afternoon, with two key players returning, Cruz Azul will be looking for some overdue revenge.

Pumas UNAM vs. Cruz Azul kicks off on Sunday at 1pm EST (12pm local time in Mexico City), and can be seen in the U.S. on Telemundo.