The #5 seed Rayados of Monterrey blanked top-seeded Cruz Azul in their first-leg semifinal match and they’ll take a 1-0 lead to Estadio Azteca.
Monterrey midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro scored 4 minutes into the match when the top defense in Liga MX fell asleep and the Rayados made the goal stand up.
Dorlan Pabón had space and time deep on the right flank and Pablo Aguilar backed away from Pizarro who was all alone at the near post and only had to redirect the pinpoint pass from Pabón toward the net. There were six Cruz Azul players in the box and only three Rayados, but nobody marked Pizarro. A stunning mistake from the Cementeros.
The Rayados will likely regret not taking advantage of their numerous scoring opportunities to extend the lead, but holding Cruz Azul without a goal is critical as “away goals” is the first tie-break.
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Monterrey dominated for long stretches of the first half, buzzing around Cruz Azul’s goal area, finding space between lines and getting into the box on several occasions. Pabón fired several dangerous crosses that tested the Cementero defense.
Pizarro was particularly effective in the match, spinning and whirling around midfield while working lovely give-and-go’s with Jesús Gallardo. Up front, Rogelio Funes Mori presented well and managed to get shake free of his markers to let fly on several occasions.
Most impressive for Monterrey was the defensive pressure they exerted. Starting with Funes Mori pressing and forcing quick passes by the back line and supported by aggressive and alert double-teaming in midfield, Cruz Azul rarely looked comfortable on the ball.
Cruz Azul coach Pedro Caixinha can’t have been happy with the effort from his team. Martín Cauteruccio rarely found space up front (in part due to the splendid marking by central defenders José María Basanta and Nico Sánchez, but mostly due to lack of effort).
In addition, Elías Hernández and Roberto Alvarado played poorly, rarely beating the first defender and passing without conviction. Both Hernández and Alvarado were subbed out late in the game, indicating Caixinha was none too pleased. Midfielder Rafa Baca also had a poor passing night; I’m not sure he had one productive pass during the entire game.
Cruz Azul was granted greater possession for the game’s final 25 minutes after Monterrey coach Diego Alonso switched to a 5-man back line, inserting César Montes in place of Celso Ortiz. The Cementeros rarely threatened, however, all too often lofting aimless crosses into the box.
Monterrey goalie Marcelo Barovero was called on only once, but he made a nice save on a header by Elías Hernández. He has yet to allow a goal in the Liguilla.
The two teams will travel to Mexico City for Saturday’s second-leg match at the Estadio Azteca. If Monterrey scores, Cruz Azul will have to win by two goals.