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Cruz Azul culminate historic regular season as playoffs loom

La Máquina have wrapped up the superliderato, but now must confirm it and deal with their ghosts as the playoffs approach.

Cruz Azul v Atletico San Luis - Torneo Guard1anes 2021 Liga MX Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Cruz Azul won on Saturday. What’s new, right? In what was supposed to be a rather simple victory after jumping out to a 2-0 lead within the first 20 minutes against the league’s 2nd worst defense and 3rd worst team overall, La Máquina suprisingly ended up hanging on to dear life with a 3-2 lead over a menacing Atlético de San Luis squad in the final minutes. Cruz Azul has now gone undefeated in its last 14 matches, and have also won 13 out of said 14 matches. No other word to describe this span other than mind-blowing. Simply unheard of in Mexican Football. Their strategy has led them to concede a minuscule 10 goals (league best) in the 16 matches played. That’s right, less than half a goal allowed per match. Their offense has also been on point when needed, owning the league’s 2nd best offense with 25 goals scored.

But, what happened Saturday has been the story pretty much all season; they grab a lead and defend it rather than expanding on it, which leads to them suffering throughout the final stages. It just so happens it’s worked out for them in literally every match in which they’ve led. Their last 8 league victories have come by a one-goal difference; that’s how close it’s been. A couple plays here and there that didn’t work out in their favor and we could very easily be looking at a totally different story to their season, as they’ve taken almost every game to the very limit. Not to be Johnny Rain Cloud over here, but the intensity with which teams play the regular season greatly differs from that of the playoffs, and that’s ultimately been the difference with Cruz Azul in the playoffs over the past decade at least. There’s just no other explanation for how they’ve had such good regular season teams and not been crowned during the 2010s. And we saw it again in December against Pumas in that SF second leg.

With Saturday’s result, they have once again clinched 1st overall and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (add one more season to their great regular season top 4 performances). They have 40 points and managed to stave off a tough América who found a second wind under new coach Santiago Solari. They really gave them a run for their money by ending their win streak at 12, but it wasn’t enough to overtake them as league leaders. Now, we turn our focus to the real games, as the playoffs are a totally different story.

The real question is, will their usual strategy of taking a lead and sitting back for the rest of the match work out? The more frequent answer is usually no, because now they become 180-minute matches. And will they be capable of overcoming a disadvantage in the score if given? The answer during the regular season has also been no; in their 13 wins, they haven’t trailed a single second. In the other 3 games they haven’t won (1 draw, 2 losses), they’ve trailed in all of them and have been incapable of coming from behind. A third valid question is, is the intensity the same during the playoffs than the regular season? Again, absolutely not. Teams won’t just let them sit back and defend. They’ll make them pay, just like Pumas did last season and many other have also done before. Not to mention, the added pressure of the playoffs.

In conclusion, give credit where credit is due. Cruz Azul have performed greatly this season and deserve to be where they are, and especially Juan Reynoso for turning this team’s ugly situation around in a jiffy back at the start of the season. But if anyone is trying to tag La Máquina as favorites, they oughta think again and again. América, León, Tigres, and possibly Rayados have different speeds during the playoffs. We’ve seen Cruz Azul have success and outplay the best of ‘em during the regular season. Now, we must see it in the playoffs.