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Monterrey Vs. Cruz Azul, CONCACAF Champions League: La Maquina In The Better Form

The second of the two CONCACAF Champions League semifinals (this one also known as the regional final of the Mexico division) matches up two teams with loads of recent success in the Primera Division. Monterrey and Cruz Azul have been the two most consistent Mexican clubs in recent seasons, both establishing themselves as permanent fixtures near the top of the standings, with Monterrey claiming two of the last three league titles. Cruz Azul, in spite of this recent success, are still in many ways known more for their failures. La Maquina have repeatedly come up short on the championship stage in the Mexican Primera, finishing as league runners-up in three of the last six seasons, a trend that has duplicated itself in CCL play. The perennial bridesmaids, Cruz Azul have reached the CCL final in each of the last two years. Both times, though, they came away empty-handed; losing out to Atlante in 2009, and falling in dramatic fashion to Pachuca in a last second stoppage-time goal one year ago.

In league play so far this season both teams have been solid, if unspectacular. Monterrey have had a bit of a struggle (at least by their usual high standards), suffering four losses already this year – a number which matches their loss total from the previous two regular seasons combined. During the past month the Rayados have also been forced to weather the loss of star striker Humberto Suazo, who has been out of commission recovering from a shoulder injury. Suazo has been back training with the team this week, and may make a return to the field on Wednesday night, albeit most likely coming off the bench.

While neither Monterrey nor Cruz Azul currently hold the top spot of their respective groups in the Primera standings, both clubs have a firm grasp on a Liguilla playoff spot. Monterrey are second in Group 1 behind Tigres, while Cruz Azul are tied with Morelia for second in Group 3, behind first place Pumas UNAM. The two sides do enter Wednesday’s semifinal on a bit of an upswing, as both are coming off wins in league play over the past weekend. Monterrey have had more time to rest following last Friday night's 1-0 road win over Necaxa. Cruz Azul have a much shorter turnaround following their huge win over Club America in Sunday night's Clasico Joven. While it was an incredible victory, rivalry games are emotionally taxing. Cruz Azul will have to avoid a letdown this week, and make sure they bring a renewed sense of urgency to Wednesday night’s match in Monterrey.

How they got here
  • Monterrey: The Rayados relied heavily on their defense in the CCL quarterfinals, keeping Toluca scoreless over both games in the series - a pair of 1-0 wins.
  • Cruz Azul: La Maquina had absolutely no trouble in their quarterfinal match-up, steamrolling a slumping Santos Laguna by an aggregate score of 5-1 to advance to the semifinals with ease.
Players to watch
  • Monterrey: Without Suazo, Monterrey have relied on their defense to get results in recent weeks. And while Suazo will likely make an appearance off the bench, the key for the Rayados remains the play of their backline. Central defenders Jose Maria Basanta and Hiram Mier have been outstanding so far this season. Basanta, a veteran Argentinean defender, serves as the backbone of the Monterrey defensive unit, and his play will be key to containing Cruz Azul striker Emanuel Villa.
  • Cruz Azul: There’s no question that Emanuel Villa is the focal point of the Cruz Azul attack. In their ten league games this year, Cruz Azul are undefeated in the five where Villa got on the scoresheet. The striker is also coming off one of his best games of the year, a two-goal outing against rivals Club America in Sunday's Clasico Joven. If Villa can maintain this scoring form over the next few weeks, then Monterrey will be in serious trouble.
Probable lineups
  • Monterrey (4-4-2): GK: Orozco; DF: Paredes, Basanta, Mier, Osorio; MF: Cardozo, Ayovi, Zavala, Martinez; FW: Santana, de Nigris.
  • Cruz Azul (4-4-2): GK: Corona; DF: Pinto, Cervantes, Ponce, Dominguez; MF: Aquino, Pineda, Torrado, Villaluz; FW: Orozco, Villa.
Head to head
  • Monterrey wins if: The Rayados will claim the upper hand if they can contain Villa, and severely limit his scoring chances (as well as those of his likely partner up top, Javier Orozco). Monterrey will be aided in this task by the loss of Cruz Azul midfielder Christian Gimenez, who will be serving a suspension following two yellow cards in his last quarterfinal match. Gimenez is a key component (maybe even THE singular key component) of the Cruz Azul offense – something illustrated on Sunday where he set up both Villa goals from the left flank. With Gimenez out of the lineup, the Monterrey defense has to be given a slight upper hand. In their last six matches, including CCL games, Monterrey have scored only five total goals. The fact that they have lost just one of those six matches shows just how well the defense has been playing of late. A similar effort at home on Wednesday will get them the win.
  • Cruz Azul wins if: Cruz Azul need to press the action offensively from the start on Wednesday night. While Monterrey has the better defense, if Cruz Azul can find a way to score early, the pressure will shift to the Rayados attack. Playing from behind is not something that Monterrey does well. As one of the top scoring teams in the league, Cruz Azul have the talent to jump out early. Without Gimenez it certainly won’t be easy, though. If Cruz Azul’s wide midfielders can gain traction and set up Villa and Orozco, then the team can pull off the road win.
Prediction

Cruz Azul has to be given a slight edge in current form. Sunday’s win over America in the hostile Estadio Azteca environment showed a new level of toughness for this team. The problem is that losing Gimenez will have a significant negative impact on the effectiveness of the Cruz Azul attack. The loss of Gimenez, combined with a tough Monterrey defense, will likely make it difficult for Cruz Azul to get on the board. We also can’t discount the impact (both on the field and emotionally) that Suazo's return may have on the Monterrey offense, if he does indeed make an appearance. Overall, it looks to be an intriguing and fairly even match-up. A 1-1 draw seems to be a likely outcome on Wednesday night in the first of the semifinal legs between these two teams.

- Report by Eben Lehman of FMF State of Mind