The curtain has come down on the regular league season in Mexico, with Cruz Azul ending seven points clear at the top of the standings and also boasting the best attacking and defensive records in the land.
La Máquina Celeste will now go forward with the seven teams finishing below them to contest the 2010 Apertura play-offs, which start on Wednesday. Though firm favourites to push on and land the title, Cruz Azul know full well that those impressive statistics are no guarantee of success, having gone agonisingly close on several occasions recently.
Standing between them and their bid to win the league for the first time in 13 years are an imposing pack of contenders, led by Monterrey, Santos Laguna and Club America, all of whom have serious designs on succeeding Toluca as Mexican champions.
In topping the standings Cruz Azul earned the right to take on the eighth-placed side, Pumas UNAM, who crept into the play-offs courtesy of a stunning 1-0 defeat of America at the Studio Azteca on the final day of the regular season.
Los Cementeros will need to be watchful against the university outfit, who have been something of a bogey side for them in recent years. Pumas ousted Cruz Azul in the 1998 and 2004 play-offs and were one of only two teams to beat Enrique Meza’s men in the current campaign.
Despite that and the weight of expectation, Cruz Azul's central defender Horacio Cervantes is confident his side can pull through. “The pressure’s on. There’s no point in denying it. A lot of people are expecting us to convert our first place into a league title, and that’s an extra source of motivation for us.”
Having finished just behind Cruz Azul, Monterrey will lock horns with Pachuca on Thursday in a tie between the two most successful sides of the last decade. Though favourites on paper, Los Rayados lost momentum at the end of the regular season, while Pachuca will be in confident mood after rounding off with back-to-back wins.
Monterrey will also be without the first-choice trio of Luis Perez, Jonathan Orozco and Severo Meza for the first leg, all three of whom are suspended. Humberto Suazo and Walter Ayovi are also away on international duty, although they could yet make an appearance should they arrive back in time. Even so, Rayados coach Victor Manuel Vucetich is optimistic about his side’s chances: “We have a very well-balanced squad, and we’d only be at a disadvantage if we were only allowed put eight players out on the pitch.”
Runners-up last season, Santos Laguna came in third behind Cruz Azul and Monterrey and now pit their wits against surprise package Jaguares, whose organisation and effective style helped them surpass their initial goal of avoiding relegation.
The tie features an interesting sub-plot as two of the league’s finest strikers go head-to-head: Santos’ Ecuadorian front man Cristian Benitez - the league’s top scorer with 14 goals - and Jaguares’ Colombian striker Jackson Martinez. Both have been called up by their countries for this week’s friendlies, however, and could miss the first leg.
Even if Benitez fails to make Thursday’s game, Los Albiverdes will not be lacking in motivation, as midfielder Jose Maria Cardenas explained: “At the start of the season we set our minds on reaching the final again and we’ve already taken the first step.”
In the remaining tie Manuel Lapuente’s big-name America side face off against San Luis. Las Águilas owe their spot in the play-offs to clever tactics and razor-sharp finishing, while Ignacio Ambriz’s industrious outfit have made up for a lack of star quality with some impressive teamwork.
And as goalkeeper Cesar Lozano has pointed out, San Luis have not come this far just to make up the numbers: “Beating America always gives you something to shout about because they’re one of the biggest teams in Mexico. It’s a boost for your confidence and we’ll be having a go and trying to put in a good performance.”
This week’s fixtures (home teams in first leg listed first)
Wednesday 17 and Saturday 20 November: San Luis-America and Pumas-Cruz Azul
Thursday 18 and Sunday 21 November: Pachuca-Monterrey and Jaguares-Santos