Twenty-one years and counting. That’s how long it has been since Cruz Azul won its last Liga MX championship.
A generation of Cruz Azul fans don’t know what it’s like to experience a league champion. It’s been so long, in fact, that when the Cementeros last hoisted the trophy, the league was not yet known as Liga MX.
On Dec. 7, 1997, Carlos Hermosillo converted a penalty kick in extra time to give Cruz Azul a 2-1 aggregate win over León, earning the Cementeros their eighth league championship. Back then, it was known as Primera Division and the trophy referenced the 1997 Torneo Invierno (Winter Season).
Since then, Cruz Azul has lost six Finals, including a disappointing 3-1 aggregate loss last season to América. The crushing defeat came after the Cementeros had finished the season as the top seed.
Coach Pedro Caixinha had earlier guided the “Blue Machine” to the Copa MX championship and the Cementeros had been in first place (or tied for first) for 12 of the season’s 17 weeks. The club was far and away the best defense in Liga MX, posting 11 shut-outs in 23 games, including playoffs.
But the offense was the Achilles’ heel and it showed during the Liguilla as the Cementeros scored 4 times in 6 playoffs games and got nary a goal in the two-legged Final against América.
A stagnant attack
Cruz Azul lacked sizzle on offense, too often relying on the individual brilliance of midfielders Elías Hernández and Roberto Alvarado. Caixinha often opted to play with a single attacker and the forward line options often seemed too static.
Martín Cauteruccio and his back-up Milton Caraglio could often be found playing with their back to goal and neither consistently created space. Cauteruccio and wing forward Edgar Méndez were each playing their first season in Liga MX and neither displayed great dribbling skills, too often losing possession inside the box by trying to go one-on-one instead of circulating the ball to keep the pressure on the defense.
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But the offense was predictable and defenses could focus on stopping Hernández. This often resulted in the back-liners trying to make lead passes behind the defense, shortening possessions and limiting scoring opportunities.
To their credit, Caraglio and Méndez were willing defenders, regularly hustling to chase back and help the defense, but the Cementeros lacked options that would have allowed Caixinha to mix up the Cruz Azul attack and vary his tactics.
It was obvious that Caixinha had lost trust in his offense heading into the second leg of the Final, opting for a physical approach by starting both Cauteruccio and Caraglio and benching Alvarado. Cruz Azul only managed 5 shots all game and none was on net.
Revving up La Máquina Azul
The front office knew a more potent attack would be necessary to truly challenge for a title and general manager Ricardo Peláez wasted no time.
Two days after falling 2-0 to the Águilas in the Grand Final, Cruz Azul announced the acquisition of Chivas midfielder Orbelín Pineda. The 22-year-old playmaker struggled with injuries during the Apertura 2018, but he will be expected to team up with Hernández and Alvarado to spark the Cementero offense.
Four days later, Cruz Azul added Uruguayan striker Jonathan Rodriguez, the league’s third-leading scorer at Santos. His speed, quickness and passing skills will add an entirely new dimension to the Cementero attack. J-Rod will likely take the roster spot of Andrés Rentería who is being dangled in the transfer market.
On Dec. 27, Yoshimar Yotún, a versatile 28-year-old defensive midfielder, joined Cruz Azul from Orlando City. The left-footer could pair up with Iván Marcone in place of Rafa Baca who suffered a late-season slump or he could slot into left back to spell Adrián Aldrete from time-to-time. Yotún will take the roster spot of Angel Mena who was sent to León.
Coach Caixinha now has plenty of variables to play the style of offense he favors – a possession-oriented, forward-looking approach with quick passing and player motion. With the steady veteran defense led by Pablo Aguilar, Julio César Domínguez and Igor Lichnovsky in front of unflappable goalie Jesús Corona, Cruz Azul will challenge for a top seed again during the Clausura 2019.
But that won’t be enough. A return to the Final is the expectation … and a different outcome is required to satisfy Cruz Azul’s long-suffering fans.