Cruz Azul are one step closer to their first Liga MX title since 1997 after getting a 1-0 win over Pachuca. Cruz Azul was the better team tonight, and will be hosting the second leg of the final after a great season where they finished in first place and once again are in a Liga MX final. The game failed to live up to expectations, although it improved in the second half. Cruz Azul did their job against a Pachuca side that ran out of steam after a surprising quarterfinal series in which they defeated Club America. Cruz Azul will now wait to see who they play after Sunday’s match between Santos and Puebla.
The first half started with Cruz Azul starting with Santiago Gimenez after reports were that forward Brayan Angulo had hurt himself in the warmups prior to the match. Pachuca had the return of Antonio Figueroa to the starting lineup while Romario Ibarra returned to the bench. Cruz Azul made the better start and had the first shot when Jonathan Rodriguez got a left footed shot that was easily saved by Pachuca’s goalkeeper Oscar Ustari. Cruz Azul later came close again when a cross into the area almost found Orbelin Pineda, but he failed to get a foot on it. Cruz Azul continued to have more chances and Luis Romo wasted a good opportunity when he failed to control a great pass from Juan Escobar. Cruz Azul continued to be the better team, but the game had turned into a very even match with both teams being very cautious. This continued the pattern from the first leg where it seemed that both teams’ priority was not getting scored on. In the final play of the first half, Rodriguez got the ball in the area and got off a right footed shot that hit the post, in clearly the best opportunity of the half. The halftime whistle blew, and Cruz Azul continued to be in prime position while Pachuca didn’t even had a chance on goal even when they were the team that needed to score the most.
The second half started with Pachuca subbing out Felipe Pardo for Victor Guzman. The substitution almost paid off immediately when Guzman got off a shot that forced Cruz Azul’s goalkeeper to make a great save in the first opportunity by Pachuca in the game. Cruz Azul answered back with a great counter where Gimenez got into the area, but his right footed shot was saved by Ustari. Minutes later, Luis Romo sent a cross into the area and Santiago Gimenez dove to get a header on the ball, getting it past Ustari for the 1-0 lead. It was a great play and Cruz Azul had a deserving lead. Pachuca were still in the same situation of needing to score one goal, although it didn’t look like they were going to be able to do it. But to many fans surprise they came really close off a corner kick when Oscar Murillo jumped to get a header, forcing Corona to make a great save. Pachuca then subbed out Roberto de la Rosa and Antonio Figueroa for Mauro Quiroga and Miguel Herrera in a strange substitution, especially since Herrera is a defender. Cruz Azul looked to have scored after a free kick ended with Gimenez getting to a ball and connecting into the post before the rebound fell to Escobar, who headed the ball in. The referee correctly called it to be offside, as Escobar had deflected the ball on the original free kick and that put Gimenez in an offside position. Cruz Azul then made their first substitution by taking out Orbelin Pineda for Adrian Aldrete. Pachuca wasted a good opportunity when a cross by Erick Sanchez found Quiroga, who had a terrible header and the ball easily fell to the hands of Corona. Cruz Azul subbed out Santiago Gimenez and Luis Romo for Roberto Alvarado and Yoshimar Yotun. Pachuca then subbed out Kevin Alvarez for Matias Catalan. Minutes later Cruz Azul made their final moves by subbing out Octavio Rivero and Pol Fernandez for Jose Martinez and Walter Montoya. Pachuca then subbed out Ismael Sosa for Roberto Nurse in a baffling move, as that meant that Romario Ibarra wasn’t going to play even when he had been key for Pachuca late in the season and had scored last Sunday against America. Luis Chavez then got the ball and was able get off a long range shot that surprised Corona, who had some trouble in blocking it but was able to get to the rebound before any Pachuca player arrived. Montoya then got a shot from outside the area that forced Ustari to make a great double save in the same play. Then in a controversial play, Gustavo Cabral committed a foul on Rodriguez and then stepped on him, which caused Gimenez to come off of the bench to push him, starting a big fight between both teams. It was short but had several tough moments especially kicks from Felipe Pardo and Montoya. The referee went to VAR and was able to see the hard foul and rightly red carded Cabral. Pachuca tried to get the tying goal, but never came close in the few minutes left and Cruz Azul had booked their ticket to the final.
Cruz Azul was the deserving winner, and is set not only to host the final but also to be the favored side. They were the best team in the regular season, and although they have looked solid so far in the Liguilla, they improved a lot in this series as opposed to their quarterfinals matchup against Toluca. Coach Juan Reynoso has the team set up for success, but will hope they don’t crumble under the pressure of the more than 20 years since their last title. Pachuca can hold their heads high after eliminating the two biggest teams in Mexico from the Liguilla in Chivas and America, although Coach Paulo Pezzolano might have to answer for some of the baffling substitutions and the fact that Pachuca didn’t look to turn on the heat until the second half, wasting 45 minutes. Still, they look now to be an improving team and might be a contender for another dark horse run.