What you need to know about 2018 Liga MX Apertura finalists Cruz Azul
With Cruz Azul set take on Club America in the final of the 2018 Liga MX Apertura, Tom Marshall takes a look at how La Maquina line up.
Players to watch
Cruz Azul's charge to the final hasn't been defined by one outstanding star player. It's been more of a collective effort born out of self-sacrifice and buying into Pedro Caixinha's playing style and idea.
That said, Cruz Azul's spine has been absolutely crucial. Goalkeeper Jesus Corona, center-back Pablo Aguilar, central midfielder Ivan Marcone and striker Milton Caraglio (when he's played ahead of Martin Cauteruccio) have provided an experienced and reliable base for Caixinha, containing a heavy dose of leadership ability and consistency.
It's from, and perhaps because of, that spine that attacking players such as Elias Hernandez and Roberto Alvarado -- who have garnered the headlines -- have flourished. And when the chips have been down, like in the tough semifinal against Monterrey, it's been the experienced base that has responded by dragging the team over the line.
In what is a tricky final for Cruz Azul against an America side undefeated in 15 Liga MX games, the heart of La Maquina -- Corona, Aguilar, Marcone and Caraglio -- will have to stand up and be counted.
Caixinha is meticulous in his training methodology and will leave no stone unturned in planning for Club America. The Portuguese manager has stamped his authority on the Mexican game like few European coaches in the modern era. The style is much more about hitting on transitions than the more traditional possession-based style seen in Mexico. In fact, one of Cruz Azul's weaknesses -- exposed by Monterrey -- is that when a team does sit back, there isn't much invention when La Maquina is given the ball.
In many ways, Caixinha is the opposite of America's Miguel Herrera. He's much more intense, the demands he makes on players are greater and the level of detail he goes into in training is greater than perhaps any other coach in Liga MX. It contrasts with Herrera's easy-going, player-friendly approach that seeks to get the best out of a team by getting the players onside.
But both have been among the most successful in Mexico over recent years and have one thing very much in common: They are explosive characters. Caixinha, like Herrera, is prone to outbursts and you can bet he'll be trying to get inside his opposite number's head. The battle on the touchline will be a lot of fun.
It's difficult to see Caixinha opening up too much in the first leg and his mentality will be seen when the team-sheet is released. Will Jose Maduena or Julio "Cata" Dominguez, usually a center-back, play right-back? Will it be the deeper-lying Javier Salas or the more all-action Rafa Baca alongside Marcone in central midfield? And will it be Cauteruccio or Caraglio up front?
The formation will very likely be 4-2-3-1, although both sides have the personnel to shift to a back five when required.
This is the X-factor that makes this particular final so special. The question is not so much if can Cruz Azul defeat Club America over two legs -- La Maquina finished top of the regular season standings and is perfectly capable of doing so. The real question is if Cruz Azul's players can mentally put the 21-year drought and five Liga MX final losses since 1997 to one side. And let's not forget that last time Cruz Azul reached the Liga MX final in the 2013 Clausura, the team was 2-0 up against 10-man America with two minutes to play and still managed to finish runner-up after Las Aguilas goalkeeper Moises Munoz leveled the score with seconds to go.
The signs, however, are good this time around. Caixinha and the players have talked a good game all season and there is even a feeling that the team is enjoying taking on the most talked about title droughts in Mexican football.
But we'll only really find out when the game kicks off and Cruz Azul is within touching distance of that elusive trophy.