When the Apertura 2019 season comes to an end, it will have been 22 years since Cruz Azul’s last league title. After leading a revival at rivals América, Ricardo Peláez is the man in charge of ending the Cementeros’ ignominious streak.
Cruz Azul’s infrastructure was in a state of disrepair when Rubén Omar Romano was hired in 2005. The Cementeros improved from 17th place to second-place in his first season on the job though the Clausura 2005 ended with yet another playoff loss to América.
Any hope for continuity was shattered when Romano was kidnapped just 10 days before the Apertura 2005 season began. The Argentine coach was rescued by federal agents two months later and he finished out the season, but his focus was not on the job. Cruz Azul had gone 7-1-1 under interim coach Isaac Mizrahi, but finished 2-2-4 with Romano back on the bench.
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Romano left the team after the season and Mizrahi took over, leading the Cementeros for three seasons, making the playoffs each time, but putting up only meek competition.
Cruz Azul next turned to Sergio Markarián, a former manager of the Paraguay national team who had just won two consecutive league titles with Libertad. The Uruguayan coach immediately led the Cementeros to the 2007 Copa Panamericana title (defeating Boca Juniors 3-1 in the final). The Liga MX proved to be a bit tougher and Cruz Azul qualified for the postseason as a wild card, defeating Pachuca 6-0 in a playoff before losing to eventual champion Atlante in the quarterfinals.
The next season, Markarian had Cruz Azul in the Liga MX final as the No. 3 seed. The Cementeros started out strong in the first leg at Estadio Azul, going ahead in minute 16 behind Nicolás Vigneri. Santos answered with two second half goals then held court at home to deny the Cementeros. Worse for Cruz Azul fans was the turmoil in the front office as brothers “Billy” and Alfredo Álvarez were in a battle royale over control of the team. The uncertainty bothered Markarián and he decided not to renew his contract.
Non-call afflicts Cementeros
Benjamín Galindo stepped in and calmed the roiled waters. “El Maestro” – the same man who scored in the first leg of the 1997 Final against León – promptly led Cruz Azul back to the finals. Despite only a fifth-place finish, the Cementeros navigated the playoffs with ease, scoring three second-half goals at UNAM to eliminate the Pumas, then outscoring Atlante 4-2 to set up a Finals duel with Toluca.
Cruz Azul fans still feel aggrieved at the blatant non-call that forced the Cementeros to play the final 48 minutes of the game short-handed. With 18 minutes remaining in regulation, Toluca defender José Manuel Cruzalta steamrolled César Villaluz in the penalty box, knocking the wispy winger senseless.
Ref Roberto García Orozco waved off the foul and even showed Cruz Azul midfielder Gerardo Lugo a yellow card for arguing. Villaluz was carted to the hospital and since the Cementeros has already made their three changes, they played through overtime with only 10 men. In the ensuing shoot-out, the two teams made the first 13 penalty kicks and when Alejandro Vela missed the 14th shot, Toluca claimed the trophy.
A third final in four seasons
The heartbreak turned into heartache the following season, as the bottom fell out for Cruz Azul and the Cementeros won only twice, finishing 2-7-8. Ironically, “La Maquina” was weaving its way through the Concacaf Champions League at the same time, reaching the final against Atlante before losing. Nonetheless, Galindo was sent packing before the final game of the Clausura 2009 season and general manager Eduardo de la Torre was fired, too.
Cruz Azul’s fortunes turned around swiftly under Enrique Meza who was brought in for the fourth time. “Ojitos” led the Cementeros to an 11-0-6 record and the No. 2 seed, turning the Cruz Azul attack into the highest-scoring team in the league. And they would need every bit of that offense in the quarterfinals.
Puebla gave up 7 goals to the high-flying Cruz Azul offense in the first round of the playoffs, then advanced to the finals with two second-half goals against Morelia in the second leg of the semifinals. Standing in the way of a ninth championship was Monterrey.
In the first leg in Monterrey, Cruz Azul overcame a very early own goal to take a 3-1 lead before the half, but their defense let them down as the Rayados scored three of their own to take a 4-3 lead to Estadio Azul. Cruz Azul could not keep up with Monterrey, coming up short.
Meza would stay on as coach for five more seasons, but the team’s inconsistency was maddening. It got so bad that a new verb was invented – “cruzazulear” – that means to blow a game. When the Cementeros missed the playoffs after the Clausura 2012, “Ojitos” was shown the door.
In Part V – Structural deficiencies – the Cementeros suffer their most painful Finals loss then sink into the depths.