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CONCACAF Champions League, Semifinals Preview: Cruz Azul Vs. Monterrey

By Eben Lehman/FMF State of Mind

The second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal between Cruz Azul and Monterrey moves to Estadio Azul on Wednesday night, a place where Cruz Azul are undefeated on the year. Monterrey won the first semifinal leg 2-1 at home, and judging by the recent league form of both teams this promises to be a worthy sequel.

Monterrey has been one of the hottest teams in Mexico of late, and were winners of three straight league games before a road draw on Sunday afternoon at Toluca. Cruz Azul has been almost as good, going five league games without a loss, a streak that ended with Saturday night's surprising defeat on the road against Santos Laguna.

While neither team managed a win in league play this weekend, both teams were resting key players in anticipation of Wednesday nights match. Defensive midfielder Gerardo Torrado did not appear for Cruz Azul, while Humberto Suazo did not even make the trip to Toluca with his Rayados teammates.

In the first leg of the semifinal, Suazo did not start and played limited minutes as he was still recovering from an injury. Now back close to full strength, the talented Monterrey striker should feature prominently in this match. On the Cruz Azul side, la Maquina played the first leg without key attacking midfielder Christian "Chaco" Gimenez, who was serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation. Gimenez is the catalyst for his team’s attack, so expect to see a much more potent offense from Cruz Azul than we saw in the first leg.

Interestingly enough, these two teams will also face each other again next Wednesday in league play, which will be their third meeting in less than a month.

What Happened In Leg 1

Struggling without the calming presence Gimenez, Cruz Azul were soundly outplayed by Monterrey in the previous leg. Even without Suazo in the starting lineup, Monterrey controlled possession and earned a 2-1 win behind goals from Neri Cardozo and Sergio Santana.

Cruz Azul did manage to get on the board, though, with a goal from the unlikely source of defender Adrian Cortes. It proved to be a key score. Though trailing on the aggregate scoreboard, the away goal gives Cruz Azul a great shot to advance in Wednesday’s return leg at home.

Players to watch
  • Cruz Azul: Looking to play a more attacking game at home, the key will be the interplay between Gimenez and striker Emanuel Villa. Gimenez is great at setting up Villa in scoring position, and the two have combined for several goals this year. When Villa scores this team is undefeated, so getting him on the board is of the utmost importance for Cruz Azul. Also keep an eye on Gerardo Torrado, who did not play this weekend against Santos and was clearly missed.
  • Monterrey: Suazo is the best player on the team and always a joy to watch, but the key player may actually be his partner up top: Aldo de Nigris. De Nigris scored last week in a great outing with the Mexican national team, and then followed that up with a goal on Sunday afternoon against Toluca. While Suazo naturally draws lost of attention from opposing defenses, an in-form de Nigris can also not be ignored. De Nigris is dangerous in many ways, but especially in the air with his head if he finds any kind of space in the box./li>
Probable lineups
  • Cruz Azul (4-4-1-1): GK: Corona; DF: Pinto, Cervantes, Ponce, Dominguez; MF: Droguett, Pineda, Torrado, Villaluz; Gimenez; FW: Villa
  • Monterrey (4-4-2): GK: Orozco; DF: Osorio, Basanta, Morales, S. Perez; MF: Cardozo, Ayovi, L. Perez, Martinez; FW: De Nigris, Suazo
Head to head
  • Cruz Azul wins if: When Gimenez sets him up in good position, Villa knows how to finish. If Villa can get Cruz Azul out to an early lead it also takes all the pressure off the home side. A 1-0 win would be good enough to send Cruz Azul through. If Villa can get going early, though, this team is capable of scoring multiple goals in a flash.
  • Monterrey wins if: Containing Villa will be the number one task of the Monterrey defense. The Rayados come in with the aggregate score advantage, so all they need to do is keep Cruz Azul off the scoresheet. They are certainly capable. While the Monterrey stars are all on the attacking end, this is also one of the best defensive units in the league. Monterrey have conceded just four goals in their last eight league matches. One complicating factor, though, is goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco’s ankle injury. Orozco picked up the injury in training last week, and while he played on Sunday against Toluca, he was still in considerable pain.
Prediction

In front of the home crowd, Villa breaks through for an early goal and breaks the match wide open. With both teams attacking, Monterrey cannot gain the traction they had in the first leg. With Gimenez leading the attack, and Torrado controlling the midfield, Cruz Azul scores multiple goals to advance to their third straight CCL final.

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