Aguilas survive frantic Cruz Azul comeback effort

Agustin Marchesin exults after América defeated Cruz Azul in the Clausura 2019 quarterfinals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Agustin Marchesin exults after América defeated Cruz Azul in the Clausura 2019 quarterfinals. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

América’s title defense continues despite 1-0 loss to Cruz Azul.

Cruz Azul came up inches short of a stunning upset when América goalie Agustín Marchesín snared a Pablo Aguilar header on the goal line as time expired. The Cementeros will take no satisfaction in their surprise 1-0 victory as the Aguilas move on to the semifinals on the back of the 3-2 aggregate scoreline.

For the 11th time in their last 14 playoff meetings, América eliminated Cruz Azul but the Aguilas ought to be grateful that time ran out when it did.

After losing the first-leg match 3-1, few pundits (including me) gave Cruz Azul much of a chance as América has dominated the Clásico Joven for more than a decade and had not lost to the Cementeros since October 2014.

Cruz Azul coach Pedro Caixinha had other ideas. The Portuguese manager tweaked his line-up, moving central defender Igor Lichnovsky into the holding midfielder position and bringing in right back José Madueña in for midfielder Rafa Baca. That moved Julio César Domínguez in from right back to take Lichnovsky’s position next to Pablo Aguilar.

The change had two purposes – Baca is simply too small to hold up against the physical América midfielders and Domínguez is not fleet enough to keep up with América’s wingers – and it worked out beautifully as Cruz Azul dominated time of possession throughout the match. Lichnovsky wreaked havoc in midfield and forced the Aguilas to play the ball wide, but Madueña was quick enough to cut off attacks down his flank. Plus, Madueña pushed forward quite effectively, keeping América from flooding forward.

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América’s tactical approach further helped Cruz Azul, because they compressed their lines in an effort to shut down the Cementeros and frustrate them into mistakes. Instead, their conservative strategy allowed a patient Cruz Azul to press the attack, probing for openings. Jonathan Rodríguez was able to find some of these openings, but he squandered two clear-cut scoring opportunities in the first half. Still, Rodríguez – who started in place of Edgar Méndez – was a constant threat, moving from side-to-side and finding space between América’s back four.

The teams went into the locker room at the half knotted at 0-0, but the Cementeros had gathered plenty of confidence from its performance, despite failing to take advantage of its opportunities, including 8 corner kicks.

Cruz Azul had launched 10 shots, while holding América to 1. However, the Cementeros had sprayed 9 of their shots and Rodríguez was the primary offender. Cruz Azul’s inaccurate shooting would prove to be its undoing. The Cementeros got off 18 shots for the game, but only 3 were on net.

Rodríguez made up for his profligacy early in the second half, blasting home from 15 meters off a beautiful feed from Roberto Alvarado. The score put Cruz Azul up 1-0, though they still trailed 3-2 on aggregate, but the intensity increased dramtically.

Around minute 75, the Cementeros began to run out of gas and suddenly América was finding scoring chances. For about 10 minutes, the game deteriorated into a series of sloppy end-to-end rushes. Cruz Azul finally managed to gather itself again as the game went into stoppage time, and earned a corner kick in minute 90+5. Yoshimar Yotún lifted his cross to the back post and Cruz Azul’s Aguilar rose to head it home but a teammate also gave chase and bumped him as he jumped, just enough to take the sting out of the header. Marchesín dived to his left and came down with the ball inches short of the goal line.

No. 5 seed América will now face top-seeded León in the semifinals, with the first leg at Estadio Azteca. The visiting Esmeraldas spanked the Aguilas 3-0 on Matchday 6 in their only meeting this year.