Is Cruz Azul back on track to make a playoff run?

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MARCH 16: Players of Cruz Azul celebrate after an own goal of Pachuca during the 11th round match between Cruz Azul and Pachuca as part of the Torneo Clausura 2019 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MARCH 16: Players of Cruz Azul celebrate after an own goal of Pachuca during the 11th round match between Cruz Azul and Pachuca as part of the Torneo Clausura 2019 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Last month, Cruz Azul was on the verge of firing its coach, but a winning streak might have reversed the team’s fortunes.

Only a month ago, Cruz Azul was in full-blown crisis mode and management was packing coach Pedro Caixinha’s suitcases.

After finishing top of the table and making the Finals last season, the Cementeros were stuck in the bottom half of the standings, dipping as low as #14 after Matchday 7 and remaining there after a tie at lowly Veracruz on Matchday 8.

Now after a modest 3-game winning streak, Cruz Azul is in 7th place, only 1 point behind 4th place América. And the most recent win was an impressive 4-1 win over a strong Pachuca team. Caixinha is once again secure in his post and Cementeros fans are dreaming of another long playoff run. This time, perhaps, putting an end to the club’s nearly 22-year title drought.

But is the turnaround a fait accompli? Or is it mere happenstance more accurately reflecting the easy part of the Cruz Azul schedule?

Line-up juggling finally paying off

Coach Caixinha is already plotting his strategy for the Cementeros’ upcoming visit to Monterrey knowing that last season’s leading scorer – Elías Hernández – is out for the season. The playmaking winger had to undergo surgery after his knee did not respond to rehab.

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“El Patrullero” had missed 5 of Cruz Azul’s 11 games up till now and the team did not respond well to his absence. The Cementeros had only 6 goals through the first 8 games.

But it was Caixinha’s attempt to shore up his defensive midfield that seems to have turned the season around. The Portuguese coach inserted winter acquisition Yoshimar Yotún in midfield alongside Javier Salas and the Peru international has flourished.

Yotún has stabilized the line in front of the back four, while also flashing playmaking skills. This, in turn, gave a new opportunity to big-money transfer Orbelín Pineda and the former Chivas star has found a new home in the space between the Yotún-Salas tandem and striker Milton Caraglio.

Pineda appears to have rediscovered his confidence and he is again buzzing around the offensive third, distributing and creating scoring chances like he did with “El Rebaño Sagrado.”

The hulking Caraglio has benefited from the new dynamic in midfield, scoring twice against Pachuca in Cruz Azul’s last game. Now Caixinha must hope that Roberto Alvarado can return to the form he displayed last year when he and Elías wreaked havoc on the flanks. “El Piojo” is on duty with El Tri and is expected to see action against Paraguay, so the Cementeros faithful hope the 21-year-old phenom returns to the club with renewed energy.

Defensive shortcomings

An additional concern for Cruz Azul management is the lack of depth on a defense that has not matched the hermetic standards it set last season. The Cementeros boasted the league’s top defense during the Apertura 2018, but the Clausura has been a slog.

Cruz Azul conceded only 13 goals last season, but has already allowed 10 through 11 games. Goalie Jesús Corona has maintained his high level of play or that number would surely have surpassed 15 by now.

Cruz Azul turnaround
Jesús Corona, 38, is one of the top goalies in Liga MX. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images) /

The back four has been nicked and bruised (center back Pablo Aguilar is playing on two sprained ankles), while Julio César Domínguez has been used at right back where his lack of speed and quickness has been exposed.

Caixinha obviously prefers the savvy of the veteran Domínguez – better as a center back – over error-prone José Madueña. But this means all three central defenders – Aguilar, Domínguez and Igor Lichnovsky – are logging heavy minutes and there is no reliable back-up.

At left back, Adrián Aldrete is enjoying a solid year, but he has not been as productive going forward as last season. Right fullback Gerry Flores is due back from injury soon, but it remains to be seen if Caixinha will be willing to let Flores play himself back into shape, because the schedule down the stretch is daunting.

Road to the playoffs is rocky

Cruz Azul’s first test after the FIFA break is at Monterrey and the potent Rayados offense will test the Cementeros defense, which will be shorthanded because Aguilar will be serving a suspension after seeing a red card against Pachuca. This is likely to force Madueña into service, with Domínguez moving inside.

Matchday 13 should be a cakewalk if the club’s turn of fortunes is genuine since last-place Querétaro pays a visit to Estadio Azteca where Cruz Azul was nearly perfect (8-1-0) last season.

The Cementeros have not enjoyed the same invincibility at home this season having already lost twice. Matchday 14 will also see Cruz Azul playing at Estadio Azteca, but this time as a visitor against fellow tenant América. This could be the game that determines whether the Cementeros can be a playoff threat.

Cruz Azul suffered a bitter loss to América in the Apertura 2018 Final and many pundits argued that the Cementeros slow start this season was related to the lingering despondency. If that is the case, another loss to América could lead to a spiral from which the Blue Machine won’t recover.

Be that as it may, Cruz Azul follows up its clash against América with a home game against the Pumas, another Mexico City rival that revels in the chance to smack the Cementeros on the nose.

If Caixinha and his boys can get through those 4 games with 6 points, they should be able to chase a playoff spot against Lobos BUAP and Morelia in their final two games. If the Cementeros can win 3 of its next 4 games, they might have a realistic chance of a top 4 seed.