The Cruz Azul season generally plays out according to a familiar script. The regular season is handled in a strong fashion resulting in a finish near the top of the table. Then the team enters the Liguilla and flames out in extraordinary fashion. This is what Cruz Azul supporters have come to expect. This is the bottom threshold that at least allows their fans to think, "maybe next season will be the one."
Clausura 2012 did not meet those expectations. The season ended unceremoniously with a draw at Azteca that just barely kept the team out of playoff competition. This coupled with a disappointing loss in the first knockout stage of Copa Libertadores was enough to send manager Enrique Meza packing. The midfield had problems generating goal scoring opportunities, and those created were not handled well by the forwards. Changes were clearly needed within the roster as well.
Most notably, Emanuel "Tito" Villa was shipped off to Pumas. After three years with the club, Villa leaves as Cruz Azul's sixth all-time goal scorer. His departure leaves a void. However, his recent form has been a little more sporadic and necessitated frequent substitutions. His legacy and commercial image may be missed more than his actual play. Colombian forward Edixon Perea was also let go, but Perea's play never gave cause for his regular inclusion in the lineup. In addition, Cruz Azul will be missing some key players due to the Olympic Games. Jesus Corona, Javier Aquino, and Nestor Araujo will miss a good chunk of the early season. Corona and Aquino are arguably Azul's two strongest players.
To replace Villa, Cruz Azul brought in fellow Argentine, Mariano Pavone. He brings great physicality and size to the front line. Pavone, a homeless man's Ruud Van Nistelrooy, has shown the ability this preseason to park himself on the back line of the defense and pluck goals with regularity. Recognizing the need to always have a Colombian Perea on the squad, Cruz Azul also signed Luis Amaranto Perea from Atletico Madrid. Perea is most certainly past his prime. At 33, he is no longer the player that he used to be, but he will definitely be needed in the absence of Araujo. The question remains whether he will take playing time away from Jair Pereira, who was Cruz Azul's best defender in the Clausura 2012 season.
The biggest additions to the squad come in the midfield. The return of Gerardo Torrado, who has been hampered with injuries for nearly an entire calendar year, could be instrumental to Azul's success. Torrado gives Cruz Azul the ability to possess the ball in midfield more comfortably. However, the biggest acquisition of the summer was Pablo Barrera, another El Tri regular. Barrera was unable to find great success in England and his recent form has been less than stellar. Yet, at just 25 years old, there is so much potential in him to break out and be a force for Cruz Azul.
Mariano Pavone -- Javier "Chuleta" Orozco still has not proven himself to be that true number 9 goal scorer that he seems capable of becoming. With the absence of Villa, Pavone will have no competition to be the ultimate target man up front. His play along with the team's potential improved distribution could result in a wealth of goals for the Argentine.
Lingering Question Mark
Pablo Barrera -- Will Barrera's return to Mexico spark a return to form? His game has been largely predicated on his speed. While far from being on downward slope, the question remains as to how he can still make his mark as others begin to catch up to him.
Christian "Chaco" Gimenez -- It's hard to break out when you've already been out for a while. Yet Chaco has been limited recently by the strains of the roster and the heavy workload. With the return of Torrado and the addition of Barrera, Chaco should be able to assume more of the offensive playmaker role he fits into so well. With more freedom to float around and create, I expect Chaco Gimenez to have a strong Apertura 2012.
A Return to Form -- Cruz Azul should be much improved from last season. I expect them to qualify for the Liguilla, possibly within the top five. They will have a strong regular season that will raise hopes of the fan base ... only to be left in tatters in the postseason.
This is the thirteenth in our series of Liga MX team previews ahead of the Apertura 2012 season. See our earlier previews of San Luis, Club Atlas, Queretaro, Club Leon, Puebla, Atlante, Jaguares Chiapas, Club Tijuana, Pachuca, Pumas UNAM, Chivas Guadalajara, and Toluca.