MEXICO CITY -- There was little reason to think Cruz Azul wouldn't be preparing to face Leon in the Liga MX final come Monday morning. You can bet that more than one journalist had started and even filed their Leon vs. Cruz Azul final previews.
La Maquina had a 4-0 lead over Mexico City rival Pumas UNAM from last Thursday's first leg and Pumas were given less than a 1% chance of making the final by FiveThirtyEight.
Until, that is, Sunday marked the ultimate "cruzazuleada."
"Cruzazulear" has become an increasingly used verb in Mexican Spanish meaning basically "to screw things up from an advantageous situation," or "to fail at something when it looks as though everything is going your way."
Cruz Azul is one of Liga MX's "big four" clubs, but is without a league title since 1997. Since then, they have finished runners-up on six occasions. The 2013 Clausura final second leg was the one that hurt the most. La Maquina was 2-0 up on aggregate against city rival Club America in the 88th minute at Estadio Azteca. America's goalkeeper Moises Munoz scored the equalizer and Las Aguilas won on penalties.
Fast forward to this current season and when Cruz Azul and Mexico midfielder Luis Romo was asked to give a message to fans in the post-game flash interview following the dominant performance in the first leg against Pumas, he told them to get "excited." Outside the club, more than one pundit threw out the idea that Cruz Azul finally breaking its title curse in this crazy year of 2020 would somehow be fitting. It was also noted that the last team Cruz Azul won the title, it was against this season's finalist Leon.
Instead, Sunday's 4-0 loss in Estadio Olimpico Universitario was a new low.
Argentine Juan Dinenno netted for Pumas in the fourth minute to give a slim bit of hope, but it also felt early on that Cruz Azul appeared to be playing into the home team's hands.
Unusually, Cruz Azul manager Robert Siboldi had employed a back five to try to stem the expected early Pumas attack. But it seemed counterintuitive given just one away goal would've meant Pumas required six goals to advance to the final. And this Cruz Azul team had won more Liga MX matches (18) in 2020 than any other team aside from Leon (21) and scored more goals (57) than anyone aside from Leon (68).
A four-goal cushion should've made the series comfortable, but perhaps sitting back wasn't the right option. And the inclusion of 23-year-old Sebastian Jurado in goal making his club debut instead of the injured Jesus Corona was concerning.
When Dinenno added his second in the 37th and then Carlos Gonzalez the team's third four minutes later, the miracle was within reach. That sentiment only increased when a penalty for Cruz Azul on the stroke of half-time was over-ruled by VAR not for the actual foul, but the slightest of off-sides in the build-up.
La Maquina did control more of the second half with the Pumas players tiring, but created very little all game (ending with an Expected Goals (xG) of 0.39 and only one shot on target), with star striker Jonathan Rodriguez isolated.
With only one goal required and Cruz Azul starting to sit deeper, the home team just needed one chance. Seeing Cruz Azul players Rafa Baca and Yoshi Yotun arguing with 15 minutes to go highlighted the tension and wasn't a great look.
Midfielder Juan Pablo Vigon was an unlikely hero, but one that seemed to encapsulate Pumas' performance and even season, in which the team has lost only twice in 21 games. Vigon was wearing a bandage around his forehead after he cut his eyebrow when he butted heads with Gonzalez in overly euphoric goal celebrations. And the Guadalajara native had gone down with cramp more than once in the second half. Other coaches than Pumas' Andres Lillini would've surely taken him off.
But 29-year-old Vigon was in the right place and the right time to control Alan Mozo's ball into the box, composed himself and finished past Jurado with one minute to go.
Pumas players cried on the final whistle. Their names will go down in history, forever linked to one of the most sensational comebacks in the history of Liga MX.
"Those that said they weren't going to watch the game, missed something beautiful," said Dinenno on TUDN, referring to the criticism the team took after the first leg.
"Remember, the Pumas player is a different breed and being a different breed, everything can happen," said Argentine Lillini in the post-game press conference.
As for Cruz Azul, next comes the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against LAFC on Dec. 16 in Florida. But how the team recovers from another devastating blow is difficult to imagine.
"I feel like I've let down the fans, the institution, but we have to keep moving forward, [football] gives revenge," said Cruz Azul coach Siboldi in his post-game press conference. "Now we go to the [CONCACAF Champions League], [to try to] get the ticket to the Club World Cup, I don't think there we were over-confident."
The Champions League and a Club World Cup appearance would be nice, but it'll be a long time before the latest cruzazuleada is forgotten.
Maturing Leon moves to deserved final
On the other side of the draw, it has been no secret that Club Leon has been the most exciting Liga MX team over the last couple of years, at least for those who like attacking, possession-based football. But there have been a couple of results in important win-or-go-home games over that period that have raised concerns about how 'Nacho' Ambriz's side manages the big occasion. The most obvious ones were the loss to Morelia in the 2019 Apertura quarterfinal and that painful defeat in California to LAFC in the CONCACAF Champions League early this year, when Leon lost the second leg of the Round of 16 series 3-0, having taken a 2-0 lead from the home game.
Leon was clear favorite for the quarterfinal against Chivas, but Guadalajara came into it high on confidence following the win over Club America in the quarterfinals and all of a sudden Chivas had players such as Jose Juan Macias and Alexis Vega back from injury.
The 1-1 in the first leg meant everything was still on the table for the second leg, but Ambriz's approach changed for the second game in Estadio Leon. The manager fielded two holding midfielders in Pedro Aquino and Ivan Rodriguez, La Fiera had only 42% possession -- compared to its 62% average over the regular season -- and Joel Campbell was played on his own upfront, no doubt in part because of his pace.
This was a slightly different Leon, one that gave away very little defensively, inviting Chivas onto it, but allowing only one shot on goal against over the 90 minutes.
Campbell found the only goal in the first half after slick through-ball from Fernando Navarro found Angel Mena, who squared from the Costa Rican to the net. But while Leon has been widely applauded for its attacking play and dizzying fluidity in the final third, it was goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota and the defense that stood out in getting Leon over the line and to the final.
Did Chivas' Vucetich get it wrong?
Coach Victor Manuel Vucetich has been accused of caution at times this season, but that can't be said of Saturday's game.
The idea from Chivas for the second leg against Leon was relatively simple: go out and attack. Vucetich started with Macias, Vega, Isaac Brizuela, Cristian Calderon and Uriel Antuna and only one real central midfielder in Jesus Molina.
On another day, the surprise inclusion of so many attacking talents may have caught Leon by surprise, but Ambriz had urged on the side of caution with his selection. And Chivas had Macias and Vega coming back from injuries, Calderon starting his third game in eight days after not playing regularly this season and Brizuela returning from COVID-19.
It all had to come together for Chivas and once Leon took the lead in the 18th minute and went into halftime up, it was going to be difficult for Guadalajara to recover.
Just perhaps, Vucetich regrets not leaving Vega, Macias (and even Brizuela) on the bench for a second half onslaught. After all, in the first leg, that exact same tactic had worked, with Chivas tying the game in the second half.
The series was also a reminder that Leon is a couple of steps ahead of Chivas right now. Ambriz has been in charge for two years, while Vucetich has been at Guadalajara less than four months. There's better chemistry and understanding.
Chivas' run to the semifinal, however, bodes well for the future. There is plenty of talent in the squad and if Vucetich does get the three new signings he wants and the off-field shenanigans that haunted the club during 2020 can be fixed, there's reason to believe that Chivas will be fighting for titles in 2021.