A Different Affair?
After an exciting but scoreless first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final at Estadio Azul, both teams who are vying for the ornate trophy along with their chance to represent CONCACAF in the Club World Cup in Morocco this December, Cruz Azul and Toluca had some preparing to do before the decisive final leg, this time at Toluca’s Estadio Nemesio Diaz. Both teams lost their Liga MX matches on the weekend, so it left us unsure of the product we’d get in the CONCACAF Champions League Final. The league matches weren’t terribly concerning as Toluca is just two points shy of league leader Cruz Azul and both team’s spots in the Liguilla are already cemented. It was to be expected that Cruz Azul manager Luis Fernando Tena and Toluca gaffer Jose Cardozo would rest some of their key players in preparation for this final.
In Spanish, ‘príncipe azul’ is a knight in shining armor. Now although Cruz Azul has had a rich history in Mexican soccer, they’ve been largely regarded as a team that has the means to achieve greatness but always seem to fall short. Opportunities to be king always seem to slip away, and thus Cruz Azul is forced time and again to be passed up as heir to the throne. Would this be Cruz Azul’s time to reign over CONCACAF, or would Toluca intervene and take their own spot atop of the region?
One player that did not play the first leg of the final or the subsequent league match on the weekend was regular starting goalkeeper Jesus Corona. Corona was issued a red card and a three match ban from a scuffle that took place during the semifinal round between Cruz Azul and Tijuana. We saw Corona’s ban reduced to just one match, meaning he could be right back into the starting XI on Wednesday to help his club win their first CONCACAF Champions League trophy since 1997.
It came as no surprise that the reincorporation of Chuy Corona into the squad would prove to be monumental in Cruz Azul’s quest for the trophy. Guillermo Allison served as a more than adequate understudy during Corona’s one match ban, especially keeping a clean sheet at home in less than accommodating weather. The rain in leg one made relatively textbook saves into opportunities for second-chance goals. Still, Allison held his own and gave Cruz Azul an opportunity to go into Estadio Nemesio Diaz without deficit in search of the crucial away goals that could seal their place at the top of CONCACAF.
A Reserved Start
The match began with both teams taking a very reserved approach to this second leg with Toluca enjoying much of the possession, but with little production of goal scoring opportunities. Tiago was first to test the reflexes of the newly returned Cruz Azul goalkeeper in the fifth minute of play as defender Isaac Brizuela of Toluca sent a square, low pass to the midfielder who was making a late run atop of the penalty box. Tiago had time to settle the ball before he cracked a low shot to Corona’s left post. Corona however, did well parry the ball out for a corner. Despite an early shot from Toluca, the match was very evenly played throughout the first half into the 40th minute.
It was at minute forty-one where we’d have a breakthrough and our first goal of this Champions League Final. Marco Fabian of Cruz Azul dumps a long cross back across the goal of Toluca’s Alfredo Talavera, to find Mariano Pavone making his run to the back post for the easy tap in. Cruz Azul finally have their lead in the form of an all-important away goal.
Second Half Heroics
With Toluca now chasing the match in their own stadium, they now found themselves in the position needing to press and force the ball into Cruz Azul’s defensive third. Toluca accounted for a few chances early into the second half of the match, including a near header as Miguel Ponce sent in a dangerous curling ball into the six yard box that Corona was just slightly able to get to, but Pablo Velazquez saw just glance over the crossbar. The equalizer finally came for Toluca in the 63rd minute when Tiago sends Benitez out to the left side of the penalty area, and does well to get a high shot off from a very tough angle. The hard struck ball sneaks high and near side into Corona’s net and Toluca now had new life in the competition with the score line tied at 1-1, but advantage still going to Cruz Azul for their away goal.
Another golden scoring opportunity came about for Toluca in the 73rd minute when Luis Perea is booked for a foul on Edgar Benitez just outside the corner of the penalty box on the left side of the pitch. Oscar Rojas sends the ball in to the box from the set piece to find Velazquez with a left footed shot that is drifting past Chuy Corona, but the keeper does well to shift across goal and palm the shot out and around the post. A very close call for Cruz Azul that could have seen them lose the advantage late in the second half.
At this point with only fifteen minutes left in the match, Cruz Azul was visibly slowing down the tempo of the game and attempting to maintain possession long enough to see the match through the dying seconds, but another late attempt at goal came in the 88th minute when Cruz Azul then had a direct free kick outside the eighteen yard box. El Chaco Gimenez had a strike from a difficult angle on the left from the set piece that rattled off of the crossbar and cleared out by the Toluca defense.
We would again have a final heavy slew of chances in the dying minutes of stoppage time Mariano Pavone takes a quick shot at goal that is tipped over the bar by Talavera. A better chance is had by Toluca shortly thereafter in the 94th minute when Ponce has a shot from well outside the eighteen yard box that forces Corona into a reflex save as the shot is deflected on its way to goal. Corona gives up the second chance shot for Toluca but Velazquez unable to put his shot on frame and instead watches the ball go over and out, away from danger. The final whistle blows after the subsequent goal kick, and Cruz Azul have done enough with a crucial away goal in a 1-1 final to be crowned CONCACAF Champions.
Sub-Campeon, No More
Finally Cruz Azul have shaken the monkey off their back and reclaimed their spot atop CONCACAF. Jesus Corona, who is arguably the best Mexican goalkeeper still currently playing in Liga MX, delivered the crown to his team in his first match back since his suspension in the semifinal round with stellar saves that kept Toluca in check, and Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF driver's seat.
Despite losing in the final, two Toluca players take home tournament honors with goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera taking home the golden glove and Raul Nava winning the golden boot. Pavone took home the golden ball in the tournament, and MLS’ very own Los Angeles Galaxy were awarded the Fair Play award.