Cruz Azul netted two second-half goals to clinch the top seed in the Liga MX playoffs while pushing Morelia to the edge of elimination.
Martín Cauteruccio and Pablo Aguilar scored while goalie Guillermo Allison saw his first league action of the season and pitched a shut-out, moving the Cementeros 6 points clear of second-place América in the opening game of the final matchday of the Liga MX Apertura 2018 season.
Morelia could have secured a playoff berth with a win, but now must hope that neither Pachuca nor Querétaro win on Saturday against León and Necaxa, respectively.
Cruz Azul coach Pedro Caixinha made a few surprising line-up choices even though the top seed was on the line. Starting goalie Jesús Corona was given the weekend off, while central defender Julio César Domínguez and midfielder Roberto Alvarado started the game on the bench. All three had seen action with El Tri during the FIFA break and the latter two were sent on as second-half subs.
The Monarcas opened up in attack mode and Cruz Azul was content to sit back and absorb pressure. Allison – who had only seen action in the Copa MX, which Cruz Azul won, until Friday night – was tested early and he came through brilliantly.
Morelia’s Rodolfo Vilchis collected a pass on the left flank and had time to set up and deliver a low cross into the box where Sebastián Vegas rose above his marker and headed the pass toward the far post. Allison lunged to his left and palmed the ball aside, saving a certain goal.
The Monarcas enjoyed 61% possession during the first half, but that 13th-minute save was Morelia’s only shot on goal. Cruz Azul managed to send three shots at Morelia goalie Sebastián Sosa, but none were difficult.
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In the second half, Morelia appeared to get antsy, misfiring on passes and losing possession more rapidly, while Cruz Azul sustained offensive attacks as Edgar Méndez and Cauteruccio ventured forward more confidently.
In minute 68, Alvarado – who had come on just 4 minutes earlier – dribbled out of his own end, eluded two defenders then fed Cauteruccio just above the half-moon as Elías Hernández made a run through the left channel. When “Caute-gol” was challenged by two defenders, Hernández stopped his run and turned to help just as the ball squirted free.
Alvarado had continued to follow the play and Hernández led him into the box. He dribbled to the left of goal then cut back to his right just as defender Emanuel Loeschbor slid past. Alvarado then delivered a slick pass to Cauteruccio in front of goal and the Uruguayan trapped the ball with his right foot, tapped it over to his left to avoid the onrushing Sosa and knocked it home into the empty net.
Six minutes later, Hernández’s corner kick found Aguilar alone at the near post and the defender sent a powerful header into the netting inside the far post to sew up the win.
In minute 85, Morelia’s Irven Ávila fired a low blast from the left that clanged off the opposite post. Two minutes later, Allison charged off his line and blocked a shot by Diego Váldes who had gotten behind the defense.
Cruz Azul was able to run out the clock after that and secure its 8th shut-out of the season. The Cementeros will now sit back and see who will claim the No. 8 seed and become their quarterfinal opponent in the Liguilla.
The Cementeros enjoyed a dominating season, their league-leading defense conceded only 13 goals in 17 games. Cruz Azul spent 13 weeks in first place, 4 weeks in 2nd place and 1 week in 3rd place.
The regular-season title means Cruz Azul has first choice of a home date in next week’s quarterfinal series, meaning the Cementeros will get a chance to play on the new turf at Estadio Azteca before their co-tenant, América.
Puebla 0, Tijuana 0
Despite playing with 10 men for the game’s final 35 minutes, Puebla outplayed visiting Tijuana as both teams ended their Apertura 2018 seasons with a disappointing scoreless draw.
Tijuana goalie Manuel Lajud made two nice saves early in the first half to keep the Xolos in the game and Puebla held possession patiently and worked the ball around looking for shots, but rarely taking any (9 shots total, 5 of which were on target).
Early in the second half, Christián Tabó fired a shot from the top of the box and his follow-through caught Tijuana defender Omar Mendoza in the upper thigh. Ref Oscar Macías went to video replay and determined that it was a red card offense although it sure seemed to be inadvertent contact.
Even so, the Xolos closed out their season with a whimper, only managing two shots on goal for the game.