Liga MX: Cruz Azul has one goal: Ending 21-year title drought

AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 15: Elias Hernandez of Cruz Azul lament during the 9th round match between Necaxa and Cruz Azul as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Victoria Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)
AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 15: Elias Hernandez of Cruz Azul lament during the 9th round match between Necaxa and Cruz Azul as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Victoria Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Cruz Azul has a 3-point cushion atop the table just past the halfway point of the Apertura 2018 season and last-place Atlas is coming into Estadio Azteca for a visit Saturday night. You might think that the folks at La Noria – Cruz Azul’s headquarters in Mexico City – would be pleased with the Cementeros’ situation.

You would be wrong.

The “Maquina Azul” is coming off its first setback of the season – a 2-0 road loss to lowly Necaxa – and nightmares of seasons past are a permanent preoccupation … and will be until the Cementeros end their 21-year title drought.

An enduring slump

Cruz Azul has appeared in 5 league finals – and lost them all – since winning its 8th, and last, league title in December 1997.

The Cementeros’ most recent finals loss was particularly bitter, falling to bitter rival América when they failed to protect a 2-0 aggregate lead in the second leg despite playing with a man advantage. América goalie – that’s right, GOALIE – Moisés Múñoz scored the tying goal in injury time, then played the hero during the ensuing penalty kick shootout.

A decade ago, Cruz Azul reached three finals in four seasons and lost all three finals. The Cementeros also lost in the Concacaf Champions League finals two consecutive years around the same time (2009 and 2010). They built a real Cinderella legacy that only tasted like failure.

The collapse began after the Clausura 2014 season that saw Cruz Azul claim the No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs. Dreams of ending the championship drought ended quickly when No. 8 seed León stunned the Cementeros in the quarterfinals then went on to win the title.

Since then, Cruz Azul has failed to make the playoffs in 7 of the past 8 seasons. The Cementeros consistently found creative ways to lose and sabotage their playoff hopes. The circumstances became so laughable – that one of the Liga MX’s Big Four could not qualify for the postseason – that the media created a verb to describe the ineptitude – “cruzazulear”. Game stories regularly featured the new word as reporters shared with readers how the Cementeros had “CruzAzuled” another opportunity.

To make matters worse, the club’s only playoff appearance since May 2014 – Apertura 2017 – was cut short in the quarters by hated América. It was after that loss that Cementeros management turned to Pedro Caixinha, a 47-year-old Portuguese national who had coached Santos to a Liga MX title, a Copa MX title and the Liga MX Champions Cup.

Taking over just a month before the Clausura 2018 season started, Caixinha did not have adequate time to hand-pick a squad and Cruz Azul finished a disappointing 12th in the standings, but only 2 points out of a playoff spot.

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No excuses

With the summer to recruit transfer targets and a full training camp, Caixinha declared there were no excuses for missing out on the playoffs this season.

Caixinha’s preference to play with two strikers – a lack of quality personnel last season prevented him from using such a line-up regularly last season – was boosted by the signing of Milton Caraglio (from Atlas) and Édgar Méndez (from Spain’s Alavés) and creative options were improved by the acquisitions of midfielders Elías Hernández (from León) and Roberto Alvarado (from Necaxa). The club also signed forward Andrés Rentería (from Colombia’s Atlético Nacional), a player familiar with Caixinha from his time playing under the Portugese at Santos.

Under Caixinha, Cruz Azul’s tactical approach is to maintain possession while maintaining a vertical approach, especially by controlling the flanks. Hernández and Alvarado have been especially productive at spreading the defense, working with the fullbacks to maintain possession and probing the defense with crosses and cutbacks.

The Cementeros also employ a pressing defense with regularity, as fullbacks Adrián Aldrete and Gerry Flores (or José Madueña) contest possession up the pitch before dropping back into a back-4 formation. This strategy has proven effective because Cruz Azul strengthened the spine of its defense by adding veteran central defender Pablo Aguilar (from Tijuana) and Iván Marcone (from Argentina’s Lanús), who has proven to be a bulldog as a defensive midfielder.

Holdover Julio César Domínguez has developed a formidable partnership with Aguilar in the center of defense and goalie Jesús Corona has sparkled in net. Overall, the Cementeros pose the league’s toughest defense, conceding only 5 goals through 9 games.

Bucking the curse

Despite the many positives – one so far unmentioned is Caixinha’s ability to make in-game tactical adjustments – there remains cause for concern.

The Cruz Azul offense has too often been insufficient even though the Cementeros rank fifth in the league in scoring offense. The team has been more opportunistic than efficient and that could catch up with them in the playoffs.

Early on, Cruz Azul relied on the individual skills of Elías Hernández and his inspired play papered over some poor performances by the strike force up front. It did not help that forward Rentería suffered an injury early in the season (the 25-year-old Colombian has yet to fully fit into the rotation).

Cauteruccio and Méndez have too often squandered possessions by taking ill-advised shots or over-dribbling rather than being a bit more patient, even if only to drop the ball back out of the offensive third and maintain pressure on the defense. Perhaps, they are trying too hard to impress the coach and secure extra playing time because there are four players for two forward positions. But Caixinha has been known to rotate players anyway, so the forwards should instead focus on team offense instead of individual glory.

After Atlas this weekend, Cruz Azul’s schedule gets considerably more challenging. Matchday 11 sees the Cementeros visiting Pachuca, followed by home against Monterrey. Matchdays 14 and 15 present Mexico City derbies – at home vs América (currently in 3rd) followed by a visit to UNAM (in 2nd).

Although unlikely, a few tough breaks, poor refereeing, a key injury all could conspire to ruin a promising season for Cruz Azul and Caixinha.

Unless and until the offense displays more discipline – especially with regard to shooting accuracy – the ghosts of Cruz Azul’s recent past will not be scared away. And even the most faithful Cementero fans will not fully believe that their heroes won’t CruzAzul another season away until the playoffs begin and the Maquina Azul is still actively chasing the franchise’s 9th title.