The 2009/10 CONCACAF Champions League will not live as long in the memory of football fans as the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Yet, just as the latter tournament is remembered for the contribution made by the Netherlands, who came so close to lifting the Trophy, the former will be recalled more for the misfortune of the gallant runners-up than the side that won it.
That is not to say that champions Pachuca did not deserve to emerge triumphant for the third time in four years, an extraordinary achievement by any measure. Vying with them for the headlines, however, were the luckless Cruz Azul, who have now lost five finals in the last two seasons.
In contrast to last season, when both Puerto Rico Islanders and Montreal Impact punched above their weight, surprises were few and far between this time. The four first-round groups were all dominated by the powerful Mexico contingent, who also negotiated their engagements in the last eight to set up two all-Mexican semi-finals.
Perhaps the biggest overachievers this year were Arabe Unido of Panama, who checked into the quarter-finals at the expense of the USA's Houston Dynamo and Isidro Metapan of El Salvador. Yet the Panamanians would meet their match in Cruz Azul, going down to an emphatic 4-0 aggregate defeat.
Los Cementeros went on to beat Pumas with plenty to spare in the semis, with Pachuca seeing off Toluca in the other tie to join them in the battle for a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010.
Finally agony again for Cruz
The two sides went into the final with contrasting records behind them. For their part, Pachuca have grown accustomed to lifting the trophy in recent years, having won all three of their previous deciders in the competition and also claimed the Copa Sudamericana 2007.
Cruz Azul, by contrast, have developed an unhappy knack of stumbling at the last hurdle, reaching the final of every competition they have contested in the last two years only to lose the lot, including last season’s Champions League to Atlante.
And yet, for most of the two-legged tie, it looked as if Cruz would break their recent trophy curse. Taking an early two-goal lead in the first leg at the Estadio Azul, they eventually recorded a 2-1 win. Holding their opponents to a goalless draw with just seconds remaining in the return leg at the Estadio Hidalgo, they finally seemed poised to parade some long-awaited silverware.
But it was not to be. With just one minute of added time remaining, Pachuca’s Paraguayan striker Edgar Benitez controlled a Damian Alvarez pass on the edge of the box, turned his marker and unleashed a low drive that sped past Celeste keeper Jesus Corona into the bottom of the net, triggering tears of joy for Los Tuzos and yet more heartbreak for Cruz Azul.
Benitez’s dramatic winner gave Pachuca a place at the FIFA Club World Cup for the third time in their history. Their task now will be to improve upon their best ever finish of fourth, which they achieved in 2008.
As for the losers, their only option is to persevere in the hope that their luck will one day change. “We're sick and tired of finishing runners-up,” said coach Enrique Meza, summing up the mood in the Cruz Azul camp. “It’s a bitter experience but the story doesn’t end here. Cruz Azul are still alive and kicking. We just have to lift our heads up and get on with things.”