The Liga MX semifinal series between No. 5 Monterrey and No. 1 Cruz Azul pits the league’s best regular season defense (Cruz Azul) against the only team to post two clean sheets in the playoffs (Monterrey).
Monterrey figures it must forge a first-leg advantage because Cruz Azul was the best home team in Liga MX this season and the Rayados won’t want to go there needing a win.
However, the Rayados were also one of the league’s best home teams, so they will feel good about their chances for a win at Estadio BBVA Bancomer on Wednesday night. They have a healthy Rodolfo Pizarro and he was inspired with the ball at his feet in both quarterfinal games vs. Santos.
The return to fitness of skipper José María Basanta on the back line should allow Rayados coach Diego Alonso to feel confident about throwing extra forwards onto the pitch if he needs to chase a late goal.
Cruz Azul will rely on the league’s best defense to control Monterrey, aim for a low-scoring match and set the stage for the second leg back home at Estadio Azteca where the Cementeros went 8-2-0 (including the tie with Querétaro in the quarterfinals).
The Cementeros struggled away from home, so it could be interesting to see how coach Pedro Caixinha reacts if Cruz Azul falls behind.
These two teams played for the Copa MX trophy on Oct. 31 with Cruz Azul winning 2-0 at the BBVA Bancomer, although neither team fielded a full-strength squad.
Monterrey: 9-3-5, 25 GF, 19 GA
6-1-1 at home, 17 GF, 9 GA
Cruz Azul: 11-3-3, 26 GF, 13 GA
3-2-3 on the road, 8 GF, 10 GA
Monterrey: 2-0 win at Santos
The Rayados knocked out the defending Liga MX champs with brilliant defense and opportunistic offense. In the second-leg win on the road, Monterrey played with 3 central defenders, relying on a 5-man back line to frustrate the high-powered Santos offense. Rogelio Funes Mori scored again (he scored the lone goal in the first-leg match with a brilliantly executed bicycle kick) and the Rayados sprung several counterattacks that could have resulted in extra goals.
Cruz Azul: 1-1 tie with Querétaro
The Cementeros had a 2-0 lead entering the second-leg match at Estadio Azteca and after Elías Hernández scored in the 4th minute, they basically just sat back on defense and waited for the clock to run out. In the second half, they enjoyed several lengthy possessions, simply playing keepaway. Cruz Azul gave up a goal in minute 61 but managed to close out the game comfortably.
Regular season match
Cruz Azul 2, Monterrey 1
This contest took place in Estadio Azteca back on Matchday 12 (Oct. 6) and turned on a questionable red card for Rogelio Funes Mori in minute 24. Monterrey defender César Montes scored with a header off a long free kick in minute 16 but was injured on the play and was subbed out. Two minutes before the Funes Mori ejection, Cruz Azul tied the score on a penalty kick and then controlled tempo and possession, patiently looking for opportunities to score while enjoying the man advantage. Just past the hour mark, Cruz Azul keeper Jesús Corona made two saves in quick succession off a Monterrey fast break, keeping the scores level. The winner for the Cementeros came in minute 71 when Edgar Méndez headed home a free kick curled into the box by Adrián Aldrete. Rodolfo Pizarro missed the game for the Rayados due to injury.
Medina – Sánchez – Basanta – Vangioni
Pabon – Pizarro – Ortiz – Rodríguez
Funes Mori – Hurtado
Coach Diego Alonso utilized three central defenders in Monterrey’s last game (at Santos) but that was to protect the 1-0 lead from the first leg in a tough road environment. I think he returns to a 4-man back line, with Celso Ortiz and Carlos Rodríguez doing the dirty work in midfield while Dorlan Pabón and Rodolfo Pizarro are given the freedom to venture forward and probe the sturdy Cementero defense.
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Cruz Azul: 4-2-3-1
Madueña – Domínguez – Aguilar – Aldrete
Baca – Marcone
Méndez – Alvarado – Hernández
This is the preferred 11 for coach Pedro Caixinha but I think he tweaks the tactical formation on the road. Instead of a 4-4-2, Edgar Méndez and Elías Hernández track back a bit more to help the fullbacks, while Rafa Baca and Iván Marcone sit closer to the top of the back four to reduce space for Pizarro and Hurtado to work in. Julio César Domínguez and Pablo Aguilar will take turns marking Rogelio Funes Mori
Monterrey: Midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro had more spring in his step last week than he has in a long time and his friskiness in the middle of the field could provide more space on the wings for Pabón. If he can win some 1-on-1 matches with Marcone and Baca, Monterrey will test Jesús Corona.
Cruz Azul: Midfielder Iván Marcone did not impose his will on midfield against Querétaro in either game in the quarterfinals and he must be his usual pesky self if Cruz Azul hopes to do no worse than tie the first-leg match at Estadio BBVA Bancomer in Monterrey.
I think the notoriously loud home crowd at Estadio BBVA Bancomer keeps Monterrey’s energy level up the entire game. Their speed and ambition in attack will create space to exploit, but Cruz Azul’s discipline will limit the scoring opportunities. The Cementeros will look to break on the counter and Roberto Alvarado could be the key to Cruz Azul offensive success. The Rayados will spread the field and both goalies will get a workout.