Mexican Primera División: the home of open, attacking football (and a truly harsh play off!)
January 25, 2011
To many, the display of the Mexican national side was a real surprise in the last World Cup. They were grouped with the host nation South Africa, the finalists of the previous tournament France, and Uruguay, a side containing two of the most lethal front men in European football. Let’s be honest, we didn’t expect much. Indeed, I naively expected the French to just turn up and beat them as any side containing the likes of Ribery, Govou, Anelka et al should be good enough to beat almost anybody, shouldn’t they?
How pleased I was then when Domenech’s dour, boring side was put to the sword by a display of wide open attacking football, led from the front by the Manchester United-bound ‘Chicarto’ Javier Hernandez. As somebody who now watches a LOT of Mexican football, I’m delighted to say the domestic league is full of players with bags of natural ability, and the attacking flair the national side displayed so well that night in Polokwane resonates throughout.
For those who don’t know, South and Central American leagues run rather differently to those in Europe. There are two championships consisting of one game against each side contested every year, the ‘Apertura’ (roughly translated as ‘opening’) championship in the first half of the season, and the ‘Clasura’ (closing) in the second. This is an idea that has many flaws (can you imagine having two champions a year in England or Scotland? Nor me) but it is done for the purposes of continental football. Mexico enters club sides into the CONCACAF Champions League from one championship, and the much more prestigious Copa Libertadores in the other, and because of this, the two championships per year system works really well. However, it also includes a play off system to decide the league champions- something which fans of Cruz Azul would berate bitterly.
Over the course of the season, ‘Los Cementeros’ were far and away the best side in the country. In 17 games they lost just twice, once to bitter city rivals Club Universidad Nacional (otherwise known as the Pumas) and surprisingly against strugglers Necaxa. However, they put closest challengers Monterrey to the sword away from home, as well as securing a comprehensive victory over Santos Laguna, the side who would ultimately finish third in the league. At the same time they progressed through the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League with consummate ease, even having the comfort of fielding reserve sides along the way.
The next line may not help my argument with the more cynical amongst you, but I was greatly impressed with the front line, largely led by former Derby County flop Emmanuel Villa. (Yes, I know, bring on the abuse. It can easily be countered with two words: Diego Forlan. He didn’t really enjoy his time in England either, but he’s now one of the most respected strikers in the game. But I digress…)
While the Argentine was not prolific (seven goals in 22 appearances) he was very much the focal point of their attack, bringing the likes of winger Christian Gimenez, and fellow forward Javier Orcozo into the game. Gimenez in particular was very impressive, the former Boca Juniors man scored 10 goals and made countless others, but the battling qualities of Villa were there for all to see. They were also solid at the back, conceding just 13 goals in the 17 games, and with former Sevilla and Racing Santander midfielder Gerardo Torrardo sitting in the midfield, they looked every inch like champions.
However, if there’s one thing that this Cruz Azul team struggle with it is definitely knock out football. This is the side who has lost both of the last two CONCACAF Champions League finals, the last one to a goal three minutes into injury time against fellow Mexican side Pachuca. It was perhaps inevitable then that they would fail when the play offs came about, but defeat to their city rivals must really have stung. Pumas finished 7 places and 14 points adrift of ‘El Azul‘, and despite securing a 2-1 win away from home, they were beaten 2-0 on their own patch, making the league form ultimately for nought.
Second placed Monterrey would eventually benefit in the play off final, inspired by reported Manchester United and Liverpool target Humberto Suazo to a 5-3 aggregate victory over third placed Santos Laguna. In my opinion, Chilean striker Suazo would be an inspirational signing for a top European side, and the amount of times I witnessed him turn games on their head with a piece of brilliance was truly incredible. The 29 year old would finish the campaign with 15 goals, one behind former Birmingham striker Christian Benitez, who scored 16 for Laguna.
It was a thoroughly entertaining campaign, with football played at a sky-high tempo and thunderous challenges in pretty much every game I saw. The Clasura is now underway, and it seems that Cruz Azul are still struggling to deal with the Apertura disappointment. Although they were to begin the new season with a comprehensive 4-1 victory, they were thrashed 3-0 by Atlante in their second match. (And trust me, NOBODY should lose by three goals against Atlante!)
This past weekend was my first opportunity to see Cruz Azul since they lost to Pumas, and it was perhaps inevitable they would face their city rivals again. Once again, Villa was instrumental up front, grabbing the opening goal and giving the Pumas backline a problem all evening long. Cruising 2-0 up at half time, it seemed that the ghost had been put to rest, normal service resumed. Indeed, 30-odd thousand ‘El Azul’ supporters certainly seemed to think so as they taunted their rivals.
However, 20 crazy second half minutes saw the game turned on it’s head, with a brace from Juan Carlos Cacho on his return to his old club, and a header from captain Dario Veron. Azul showed great character to equalise with less than ten minutes to go, but they will no doubt be left feeling frustrated by their inability to avenge their defeat.
I’m intrigued to see if they can pick themselves up, or whether they will endure a disappointing Clasura, but I’d suggest their priority may well switch from the league to the Champions League. They face fellow Mexican side Santos Laguna in the quarter finals next month, and the prospect of a semi final against Monterrey afterwards, so a record sixth Champions League trophy is well within their grasp. If I was a betting man though, I’d suggest more disappointment beckons for Enrique Meza’s men in both fields.