Few football fans would reject the notion that Monterrey have been one of the most successful Mexican teams over the past decade. The statistics speak for themselves: of the four league titles claimed in the club’s history, three have come within the last nine years.
It was only in 2011, however, that this impressive progress was finally reflected outside the confines of the domestic game, when the Nuevo Leon-based side won the CONCACAF Champions League and secured a ticket for the ensuing FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011.
Their adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun was as brief as it was disappointing. Los Rayados were eliminated at the earliest possible stage, drawing 1-1 with Japanese outfit Kashiwa Reysol in normal time, before being defeated on penalties.
“It was a huge letdown – we didn’t expect to lose,” star forward Humberto Suazo told FIFA.com after the surprise reverse, which was only slightly offset by victory over African champions Esperance Sportive de Tunis in the match for fifth place a few days later.
But fortunes change fast in modern football, and Victor Manuel Vucetich’s men have already put themselves in a good position to make amends. A win over fellow Mexicans Santos Laguna in the upcoming two-legged final of the 2012 regional Champions League would see Monterrey return to Japan in December as triumphant CONCACAF representatives.
When the annual tournament kicked off back in August, winning a second title in a row looked a tough challenge on paper for Monterrey but, after finishing top of a closely contested Group D, the team then went on to win three of their four knockout stage matches by at least two goals, drawing the remaining fixture 1-1.
After eliminating Monarcas Morelia in the quarter-finals and Pumas UNAM in the last four, the reigning champions now face Mexican opposition for the third successive round, with only Santos Laguna standing between them and continental glory.
Taking that final step will be easier said than done, however, as their Torreon-based opponents have recently been playing some outstanding football and sit two points above Monterrey in the domestic table. Could it be that the key to victory lies with the talismanic figure at the helm of Los Rayados?
When analysing the strengths of the men in blue and white, it is difficult to ignore the know-how of Vucetich. At the age of 56, the strategist can boast a cup final record that would be the envy of coaches the world over: no team under his guidance has ever lost one.
He has exhibited a remarkable Midas-like capacity to secure league titles and silverware almost everywhere he has been, be it in the second division, in the top flight or in continental competition, and has consistently demonstrated a natural ability as a leader.
The Tampico-born tactician’s career began at Toros Neza in 1988, when, aged just 33, he led the modest side to the second division championship in his first season. A year down the line, he repeated the feat with different charges, guiding Leon to the Segunda Division title, and then followed that up with a Primera Division crown just two seasons later.
Since then he has exceeded expectations at a number of different clubs, with Estudiantes Tecos, Tigres, Cruz Azul, Pachuca and Monterrey all lifting trophies under his tutelage. It is with the latter-named club that he has enjoyed the greatest success, bringing four of the 11 trophies he has obtained in his career back to the Estadio Tecnologico.
But the experience of the man known as El Vuce is not the only asset that the club has at its disposal. The northern side’s great success during the last three years has been due in no small part to their achieving the proper balance of competent backroom staff and high-quality players.
When it comes to slotting the ball into the back of the net, the squad is particularly well-equipped. Aldo de Nigris, Walter Ayovi, Cesar Delgado and Humberto Suazo, who is currently six goals short of equalling the club’s all-time scoring record, all pose a threat going forward.
In midfield, Luis Perez pulls the strings, while a strong defensive unit – including experienced heads like Ricardo Osorio – keeps things tight at the back. A well balanced side, they are capable of varying the play in attack, as well as knuckling down in order to win the ball back.
They are a team packed full of internationals with a sprinkling of European experience, capable of clinical finishing and marshalled by a successful coach with a winning mentality. And they will stake a claim to another CONCACAF Champions League crown in the first leg of the final on Wednesday evening, before perhaps going on to taste further success at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012.
Midfielder Jesus Zavala, one of Monterrey’s key players, is under no illusions as to the importance of the game: “It’s a must-win final, and we have no choice but to give all that we have out there on the pitch. We want to play at the Club World Cup, as we have some unfinished business with that tournament. Our goal is to return to Japan and get this monkey off our backs.”