Today will mark a very special occasion for Mexican football, with Guadalajara set to entertain Brazil’s Internacional at the all-new Estadio Omnilife in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final. Chivas are only the second Mexican club to reach this stage of the competition, the first being Cruz Azul, who came within touching distance of the trophy back in 2001.
As was the case with Los Cementeros nine years ago, the eyes of the nation are now trained on Guadalajara. And who better to discuss their chances of going all the way than Francisco Palencia and Sergio Almaguer, two members of the Cruz Azul side that captured the imagination of the country nearly a decade ago? FIFA.com caught up with the duo in the countdown to Wednesday’s big game, reliving their memories of that unforgettable run and hearing what they had to say about Chivas’ chances of pulling off a first for Mexican football.
A nation united
As Palencia explains, Cruz Azul’s charge to the 2001 final took everyone by surprise, especially with Mexican clubs having only been admitted to the competition just a few short seasons before. “Not many people expected us to get past teams like River Plate and Rosario Central, and even less so in the way that we did,” says the striker, now plying his trade with Pumas UNAM. “Those successes played a very big part in getting people to rally around Mexican football.”
Qualifying for the knockout rounds as group winners, Los Cementeros then disposed of Cerro Porteno, River Plate and Rosario Central en route to a final date with another member of the Argentinian elite, Boca Juniors.
Former team-mate Almaguer, who has since moved into coaching, has very clear memories of the double header with Boca. “It was the first time a Mexican team had got that far and the whole country was going crazy. Our two previous ties at the Azteca had been sell-outs and our results and entertaining style had generated a huge sense of expectation.”
Despite falling to a 1-0 defeat in Mexico City, Los Celestes turned things around at the legendary Estadio Bombonera in Buenos Aires, winning by the same scoreline only to go down 3-1 in the penalty decider. “That was all that separated us,” recalls Almaguer. “We took the game to them and came up just short in the penalties.
“We played a great match,” concurs Palencia. “It’s a real shame we couldn’t finish the job off. Even so, it’s still one of my most cherished memories. There was a lot of camaraderie in the dressing room and a team of 11 players who gave everything they had out on the pitch. There was nobody who saw themselves as a star.”
“We had very little to lose and so much to win,” adds Almaguer. “There was no pressure on us. We also had a perfect blend of experienced players and talented youngsters.”
Time is right for Guadalajara
Both are agreed that the Chivas players have every chance of going one step further than they did. “We really hope it’s going to happen this time and that they lift the cup,” says the Pumas forward, who spent two seasons with Guadalajara after leaving the Mexico City club. “They’ve got a fine coach and a lot of ability, both in footballing and human terms.”
Analysing the strengths of Jose Luis Real’s side, Almaguer has this to say: “They are a very dynamic and mobile team. They switch positions a lot, play a precise passing game and like to get forward. What’s more, while there were six foreigners in the Cruz Azul side that reached the final, the Chivas team is all-Mexican and virtually all of them have come through the youth academy.”
Mexican representatives have a poor record against Brazilian sides in Copa Libertadores, but our two interviewees believe that particular hoodoo is about to come to an end. “The Brazilians play a different game to the rest of the South American teams,” argues Palencia. “Going into the final with the right focus is what counts. And there’s no doubt Chivas are focused.”
“They’re just statistics,” adds Almaguer, playing down the significance of Brazilian domination. “Guadalajara have got the ability to play their opponents off the park and I feel they can take a two-goal lead from the first leg, which would be very important.”
“Any kind of win will make things easier for them,” concludes a more guarded Palencia. “That’s what Chivas need to aim for.”
Whatever the scoreline, Palencia and Almaguer would be only too happy to see Guadalajara pass the milestone they reached nine years ago and set a new standard for the country’s clubs to aspire to.