Every morning the sun rises and sets in the evening. Seasons change and seasonal expectations return. Cruz Azul returns to action this Apertura in a manner akin to the high tide encroaching on the sandy dunes. They return strong and with purpose, but an inevitable regression (in the Liguilla) surely awaits. 'La Maquina' is back and look poised from another strong run through the Apertura 2014 season. The expectations for the end result remain the same.
Full Name: Cruz Azul Futbol Club, A.C.
Nicknames: La Maquina, Azul, Los Cementeros
Stadium: Estadio Azul
Owner: Cooperativa Cemento Cruz Azul
Manager: Luis Fernando Tena
Liga MX Champions: 8 (1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1979, 1980, Invierno 1997)
Copa MX Champions: 3 (1969, 1997, Clausura 2013)
Continental Champions: 6 (CONCACAF Champions League 2014 / CONCACAF Champions Cup 1969, 1970, 1971, 1996, 1997)
Apertura 2013: 4th, quarterfinal loss
Clausura 2014: 1st, quarterfinal loss
Apertura Copa MX: N/A
Clausura Copa MX: N/A
Concacaf Champions League: Champions
Cruz Azul's past year played out in familiar fashion. The team entered last year's Apertura off the back of the crushing defeat in the previous tournament's final. Then manager, Guillermo Vazquez, led the team to another solid season. Despite the loss of Colombian forward, Teo Gutierrez, Cruz Azul was able to keep pace with their defensive strength. They held the opposition in check by keeping the score lines low and grabbing the occasional goal. It was a recipe for success, especially in the approaching Liguilla.
It didn't work out that way. Cruz Azul was throttled by the eventual finalists, Toluca, in the opening round of the postseason tournament. The normally stout defense conceded three goals in the first leg and effectively ended the season for La Maquina.
After the rough defeat, Guillermo Vazquez was predictably let go. The manager always seemed to be at odds with the fan base, despite his solid run with the team. Cruz Azul decided to change course and bring in another manager for the Clausura 2014 who recently suffered an infamous firing of his own. Luis Fernando Tena was appointed the new manager of the team. Tena was most known for his leading Mexico to gold at the London Olympics in 2012. He was also coming off the back of a peculiar stint with the senior national team. After the FMF relieved Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre of this duties with 'El Tri', "Chepo's" assistant, Tena was appointed the interim manager. One loss and four days later, Tena was let go.
With a new manager in place, Cruz Azul made another vital addition to the squad. Marco Fabian was brought in on loan from Chivas. The heavily-criticized star was known for his enormous ability and potential but also his inconsistencies and off-the-field antics. Fabian's move to Cruz Azul proved enormous for the team and him personally.
Through the guidance of Tena, Fabian became part of an offensive juggernaut. Cruz Azul stormed through the early parts of 2014. Cruz Azul was undefeated in their first nine matches with only one draw. They finished the season with only three league losses and at the top of the standings. The goals poured in as the team struck with pace and power, if not always precision.
The season was highlighted by the success in the Concacaf Champions League. Cruz Azul was able to get past a tough semifinal pairing with Tijuana to meet Toluca in the final. The two-legged final ended in an aggregate draw of 1-1, but Cruz Azul was able to claim the trophy by way of the away-goal rule.
Coming off the back of last year's Copa MX title and this year's Concacaf trophy, Cruz Azul looked to now end their league title drought as they entered the Liguilla as the one-seed. Despite finishing the season in first place, Cruz Azul faced a tough first round opponent in Leon. The defending champions cruised through the regular season as much of their focus was on Copa Libertadores play. Leon, of course, did not play like an average eight-seed and ended their two-legged battle with Cruz Azul on a 3-3 aggregate draw. Leon was able to advance on the away-goal rule and would go on to claim their second consecutive title. The away-goal rule giveth and the away-goal rule taketh away.
Luis Fernando Tena is no stranger to the Mexican league. Tena has managed a multitude of Liga MX teams and has floated around the league for the past twenty years. He is now in his fourth stint and manager of Cruz Azul and led the team to its last league title in 1997.
In many ways, he altered the play of the club when he came on the winter. Cruz Azul is now playing a quick-strike, counter-attacking brand of football that suits the roster nicely. What the team lacks in possession, they make up for with pace and quick interplay.
Tena should be given substantial credit for this past successful season with the team. However, a league title continues to be the sought-after goal. Without a return to the ultimate destination, Tena will undoubtedly feel the pressure before long.
MAJOR TRANSFERS IN
Francisco Javier 'Maza' Rodriguez (DEF, Club America, 32-years-old)
Hernan Bernardello (MID, Montreal Impact, 27)
Anibal Zurdo (FW, Sabadell, 31)
This was not one of the more exciting transfer windows for Cruz Azul. It may, however, be an effective one for the club. At 32, Maza Rodriguez is no longer the Bundeliga former version of himself. He does fit a need for the team, though. With Luis Amaranto Perea still recovering from injury, Rodriguez could slot in nicely at center-back. With the Perea's eventual return, the pairing of the two should be able to make up for what they lack in pace with their combined experience.
The veteran striker, Zurdo, could provide some much needed depth in a position which is the weakest on the roster for the club. While unlikely to be a true difference maker, Zurdo is a proven scorer who could be used to spell Mariano Pavone.
MAJOR TRANSFERS OUT
Sergio Napoles (to Chivas)
Napoles did not light the world on fire with Cruz Azul after coming from Atlante. However, he was a great player to have available on the bench. His positional flexibility and defense-stretching pace will be missed with the club.
There is no reason to expect anything but another solid season from Cruz Azul. They enter as a contender for the title and should qualify for the Liguilla. Yet, there seems to be a clear ticking clock with the current roster. Cruz Azul is normally not a club stocked in the youth ranks, but the team's core is quickly approaching its expiration date. Christian 'Chaco' Gimenez could no longer be relied upon for ninety minutes. Gerardo Torrado is surely in the twilight of this career. There are no clear replacements for these players who can live up to their abilities.
On top of this, this will likely be Cruz Azul's last months with the services of Marco Fabian, as a European move or a return to Chivas are likely. There is never a shortage of pressure and weight with this team. However, the need to strike soon is clearly present.
They will face stiff competition from a loaded Club America, Leon, and a re-tooled Toluca among others. However, Cruz Azul's biggest challenge continues to be finding a way to get over their personal playoff hurdle that continues to knock them down.
OPENING SIX FIXTURES
19th July – vs Pachuca (h)
26th July – vs Santos (a)
2nd Aug – vs Veracruz (h)
9th Aug – vs Puebla (h)
16th Aug – vs Monterrey (a)
23rd Aug – vs Queretaro (h)