Monterrey has never lost to Cruz Azul in the playoffs and the Cementeros must win at home to advance to the Final.
Regular-season Liga MX champ Cruz Azul have their backs against the wall when the take on the Rayados of Monterrey at Estadio Azteca Saturday night. After a 1-0 loss up north, the Cementeros must beat Monterrey and they might have to win by two goals (if Monterrey scores, the Cementeros will have to win by 2 goals because the “away goal” rule is the first tie-breaker).
Top-seeded Cruz Azul is unbeaten at the Azteca (8-4-0, including playoffs) but they have never defeated Monterrey in a playoff match. This semifinal marks the fourth time the two clubs have met in a Liguilla series and Monterrey is 5-2-0 and have scored 17 goals in the 7 playoff match-ups to date.
The Cementeros must rediscover their scoring touch against a very disciplined Rayados defense, backstopped by a hot goalie, Marcelo Barovero, who has not been scored upon in the playoffs thus far.
Coach Pedro Caixinha will no doubt order his lines farther forward while emphasizing about covering the counter-attack. Elías Hernández and Roberto Alvarado must step up their games and allow greater possession in the Cruz Azul offensive third, while Rafa Baca and Iván Marcone will have to figure out how to slow down Monterrey midfield dynamo Rodolfo Pizarro.
Monterrey coach Diego Alonso will be ready to change tactics if necessary as he has a healthy bench available.
Cruz Azul: 11-3-3, 26 GF, 13 GA
8-1-0 at home, 18 GF, 3 GA
Monterrey: 9-3-5, 25 GF, 19 GA
3-2-4 on the road, 8 GF, 10 GA
Monterrey 1, Cruz Azul 0
Monterrey scored early when the Cruz Azul defense broke down, failing to mark Rodolfo Pizarro at the near post and he headed home a nifty cross from Dorlan Pabón at the 4-minute mark. Cruz Azul recovered quickly, but mostly sought to absorb pressure and rarely managed to venture forward with sustained possession. The Rayados’ central defense pairing of José María Basanta and Nico Sánchez with Celso Ortiz in front closed down alleys through the middle while neither Adrián Aldrete nor José Madueña could push up the pitch. Though the Cementeros enjoyed the bulk of possession after Monterrey went to a 5-man back line, they never really threatened Marcelo Barovero who posted his third consecutive clean sheet in the playoffs. Cruz Azul only managed 3 shots all game, forcing only a single save from Barovero. Still, the Cementeros are lucky they are only down by 1 goal.
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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. Defender César Montes scored with a header off a long free kick in minute 16 but was injured on the play. Two minutes before the 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 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.
Cruz Azul: 4-2-3-1
Madueña – Domínguez – Aguilar – Aldrete
Baca – Marcone
Méndez – Alvarado – Hernández
Cruz Azul must move out from the back more efficiently than they did in the first leg in Monterrey and passing to the forwards was shoddy too. This was in part due to the smothering defense but also because Martín Cauteruccio was a stagnant target. He must be more active and force movement from the defense in order to create space on the wings for Alvarado and Hernández. If the Rayados open with a conservative formation, the defense might play a higher line and keep Monterrey back on their heels.
Medina – Montes – Sánchez – Basanta – Vangioni
Ortiz – Rodríguez
Pabón – Pizarro
If Coach Alonso opts to start out with three central defenders (as he did in the second leg against Santos in the quarterfinals), he might sacrifice midfielder Jesús Gallardo. This will force Rogelio Funes Mori to do more work chasing the ball but the fullbacks – Stefan Medina and Leonel Vangioni will advance more so that the Rayados are not overwhelmed in midfield. But the primary focus will be bottling up Hernández and Alvarado and forcing other Cementeros to be playmakers.
Cruz Azul: Forward Andrés Rentería must be ready off the bench. If the Cementeros struggle to create offense, coach Caixinha should turn to Rentería. The speedy forward could disrupt Monterrey’s tactical discipline and create space, in contrast to Cauteruccio or Milton Caraglio who is often the first forward off the bench. Both of the latter players provide a strong, lumbering presence but the Monterrey defense is good in the air.
Monterrey: Defender José María Basanta is finally healthy after an injury-plagued season and his performance in the first leg was key. Cruz Azul too often relied on the long pass to the wing and Basanta won a large percentage of those balls. His ability to cover ground and work in synch with Nico Sánchez could see Monterrey pull off the upset.
I expect Cruz Azul to be patient through the opening half hour, eager to establish a defensive net in midfield so that Monterrey has trouble counter-attacking. Defenders Pablo Aguilar and Julio César Domínguez will look to push higher up with possession and help with ball circulation. They will look to test Barovero in net early. If Monterrey scores in the first half, however, I see the game becoming a wide-open affair with Cruz Azul throwing everything forward. That will open space for Rayados’ break-outs and Jesús Corona could be called upon to stop a few 1-on-1 chances.