With all due respect to Monterrey and Real Salt Lake, Cruz Azul and Santos Laguna are the two most talented teams on the North American continent. When either team is on form and playing a first choice XI, they can beat any other team in CONCACAF. However, this doesn't mean that either side is the clear favorite in CONCACAF Champions League. Both teams are very streaky, and neither team is guaranteed to field a first-choice lineup in their CCL tie.
Neither Cruz Azul nor Santos has managed to win the Primera in recent years, but they've both been runners-up on multiple occasions. Thanks to some epic chokes, including an awful penalty shootout performance from Santos in the final of the Bicentenario, the talent from these two teams has never produced a champion.
If either team plays their first XI and stays focused through the next three ties, they will win the tournament. Let's start with the quarterfinals, though.
How they got here
- Cruz Azul: Playing what was essentially a B+ team in their group stage matches, Cruz Azul were made to work a little more than they should have. Their 5-4 defeat of Real Salt Lake at a monsoon-soaked Estadio Azul was probably the best game of the competition so far, but RSL got revenge in the final game of the group stages with a 3-1 win at Rio Tinto. The Blue Machine also lost at BMO Field against Toronto FC, but otherwise cruised through the group stage and finished in second place, behind RSL.
- Santos Laguna: Despite playing a B team throughout the group stages, Santos cruised through to the quarterfinals in first place, thanks to a weak group. Their lowlight was a loss at Columbus' Crew Stadium, but they only played two first-choice players in that game. When they put out a stronger team consisting of seven or eight first-choice players, depending on who you ask, they obliterated Municipal, 6-1.
What's changed since the CCL Group Stage
- Cruz Azul: The Blue Machine has made a couple of personnel changes, but nothing major. They still have the same core group of players. Chaco Gimenez is their best attacking threat, Gerardo Torrado is still the captain and still runs the midfield, and Jesus Corona still holds down the goalkeeper spot. Defender Waldo Ponce, left winger Hugo Drougett, central midfielder Marcelo Palau, and forward Isaac Romo are the new additions, and it's possible that any of them could play except Drougett, who is injured.
- Santos Laguna: When you get to the Liguilla final playing the most attractive football in the country, why change? Santos are the exact same team.
- Cruz Azul (4-4-2): Corona; Cortes, Cervantes, Dominguez, Araujo; Villaluz, Palau, Torrado, Gimenez; Romo, Orozco
- Santos Laguna (4-4-2): Sanchez; Estrada, Baloy, Lacerda, Figueroa; Morales, Arce, Cardenas, Ludueña; Benitez, Quintero
Head to head
- Cruz Azul wins if: Chaco Gimenez has a spectacular game. When Gimenez is on form, Cruz Azul are almost unstoppable. They struggle to score when he's not playing well, and they don't get beat when he is. An error-free performance from a streaky and inconsistent back line wouldn't hurt either.
- Santos Laguna wins if: They play a first XI or close to it, and those players give 110 percent. Santos Laguna, on their best form, are the best team in North America. If they choose to rest some of their stars or they don't put in the effort, it's a different story. It's a blow for them that Juan Rodriguez is not available, but even without him, no one beats them on talent.
Prediction: It's tough to make a call here, just because it's almost impossible to predict what lineups are going to be thrown out there. Emmanuel Villa has been working his socks off in every game in the league for Cruz Azul for quite some time, so he seems like a good candidate to get a rest. Same goes for Gonzalo Pineda. Meanwhile, Santos only played Cristian Benitez for 45 minutes on the weekend. That tells me that they're taking this game seriously, and I like a Santos A- side with nine or ten first choice players to beat a Cruz Azul B+ side with a couple less first choice players.