Bitter Mexico City rivals América and Cruz Azul meet for the 141st time on Sunday with both teams battling for playoff seeding.
The Clásico Joven, or Junior Classic (so called because it only dates back to 1963), does not require provocation to fire up emotions. But Cruz Azul coach Pedro Caixinha and América coach Miguel Herrera simply do not like each other so they stirred things up ahead of Sunday night’s big Estadio Azteca clash.
Caixinha took a swipe at Herrera’s constant whining at officials and voiced concern that the complaints would impact the way Marco Antonio Ortiz calls the match. Herrera responded by saying that he believed he was Caixinha’s idol and the Portuguese coach is jealous of his success at América.
Last season, Cruz Azul led the league virtually from start to finish, claiming the #1 seed for the playoffs after winning the Copa MX. Meanwhile, América finished #2 then dominated the Cementeros in the Final to win their league best 13th Liga MX title. And the previous time Cruz Azul made it to a Final (Clausura 2013), the Aguilas were there to beat them with a late comeback to get to penalty kicks, winning 4-2 in the shootout.
Cruz Azul has not defeated América since a 4-0 win on Oct. 4, 2014, going 0-5-7 since then.
This time around, the Cementeros believe they have momentum on their side (unbeaten in their past 5 matches, winning 4 of them) and they want to continue their postseason push after a slow start that saw them sink into 14th place as late as Matchday 8.
So just a month ago, we were talking about Caixinha getting fired, but since then Cruz Azul has made a charge up the standings. In fact, if the Cementeros win Sunday night, they will be only 1 point behind the pace they set last season when they finished the Apertura 2018 as the top seed.
But unlike last season, Caixinha and the Cementeros have been dealing with mounting injuries. Defensive midfielder Javier Salas had just started to play well when he tore his Achilles’ tendon on March 30. A month before that, Stephen Eustáquio – another defensive midfielder – tore knee ligaments and last week it was announced that leading scorer Elías Hernández was out for the season too. To make matters worse, midfielder Rafa Baca will miss the match due to suspension.
The Aguilas are coming off a 1-0 win midweek against second division Juárez to claim their first Copa MX title in 45 years. In league play, América has been inconsistent, occasionally playing down to the competition (losing at Tijuana and stealing a draw at Morelia, but stomping the Tigres and smothering the Chivas).
The defending champs have also been dealing with injuries, but fortunately few have been of the long-term variety, Oribe Peralta being the exception. This past week, the Aguilas lost midfield playmaker Nicolás Benedetti for a month, but striker Nico Castillo is expected to be available after missing the past three games.
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Tijuana 3, América 2
The Xolos came back from a goal down twice then went on to win in a game marred by controversial calls (Herrera was griping all game long). Guido Rodríguez scored twice against his former team, but the Aguilas could not overcome the absence of both central defenders – Bruno Valdez and Emanuel Aguilera – both of whom were rested due to minor knocks.
Cruz Azul 3, Querétaro 0
Milton Caraglio has found his scoring touch this past month and he scored twice for the Cementeros in their easy victory. Midfielder Orbelín Pineda scored only his second goal of the season, but he demonstrated he is getting more comfortable in Caixinha’s offense. The Cruz Azul defense was rarely tested, but the Gallos Blancos don’t offer the challenges América will present.
Aguilar – Aguilera – Valdez – Sánchez
Ibarra – G.Rodríguez – Álvarez – Uribe
Martín – Castillo
Coach Herrera could opt to start Castillo on the bench since he is coming back from injury, instead placing the speedy Andrés Ibarguen in a wide position where he can test right back Julio César Domínguez. The Aguilas might try using high pressure since Cruz Azul is thin in midfield, mixing that with a vertical offensive attack. And if Castillo is deemed fit enough for 90 minutes, Ibarguen could start in place of Henry Martín to create a 4-2-3-1.
Cruz Azul: 4-4-2
Domínguez – Aguilar – Lichnovsky – Aldrete
Yotún – Pineda – Alvarado – Méndez
Caraglio – Rodríguez
Last week, Caixinha used 17-year-old midfielder Jorge García off the bench, but I can’t see him throwing him into the fire against the Aguilas. He’s more likely to start a little conservative and encourage his offensive-minded midfielders to track back and lend cover to the back four. Yoshimar Yotún has been a sparkplug of late and Cruz Azul will look to him and Pineda for transition offense.
América: Midfielder Guido Rodríguez has been a monster in midfield and he can wreak havoc on an offense all by himself. Alongside Edson Álvarez, the Aguilas can be intimidating to anyone trying to traverse the middle of the pitch against América.
Cruz Azul: Forward Edgar Méndez could be called upon to help Domínguez on the right flank but he’ll still be expected to get wide up front to stretch the América defense.
With the way América has dominated the Clásico Joven added to the holes in Cruz Azul’s line-up, the Aguilas are understandably favored. I can’t help but wonder if América might have a bit of a letdown after fighting so hard to win the Copa MX trophy. When combined with overconfidence (I think América truly does not consider the Cementeros as a threat in the playoffs) and heavy minutes for some key players, the Aguilas could be subconsciously looking ahead to the playoffs already. This being said, I think the high intensity atmosphere could take a toll on the short-handed Cementeros.