Pablo Aguilar settles Cruz Azul's nerves; Santos Laguna and Monterrey still with plenty to play for
MEXICO CITY -- Three points on the Liguilla openers in Queretaro and Monterrey:
1. Cruz Azul impresses early; shows no playoff jitters
When Pablo Aguilar slammed in the game's first goal after 16 minutes at the Estadio Corregidora, no Mexican soccer observer would be surprised if a collective sigh came out of the mouths of Cruz Azul fans everywhere. The Paraguay international put his team on course for what ended up being a comfortable away victory that sets the number one seed up for a smooth road to the next round.
Given all the attention and pressure being lobbed on Cruz Azul for their extended championship drought, as well as excellent play in the regular season, tonight was anticlimactic for all involved. After Edgar Mendez doubled the lead early in the second half, a third goal was on the cards on more than one occasion for Los Cementeros.
Pedro Caixinha's team failed to speculate from the get go, piling pressure on the opposition and disabling the one thing that made Queretaro successful against them earlier in the year: Stifling the counter-attack. On Saturday, Wednesday's losers will need nothing short of a miracle to move forward.
2. Funes Mori's cracker gives Monterrey the advantage
A fantastic goal from Rogelio Funes Mori was the difference at the Estadio BBVA Bancomer, giving the hosts a slight advantage in a very evenly matched game. Though the home team only held onto the ball for 46 percent of the match, they had five shots on goal to Santos Laguna's four.
In the 59th minute of the game, Funes Mori chested upwards off a cross from the right side of the box, then swiftly leaped into a bicycle kick that left former Monterrey goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco without the slightest chance to save. Just five minutes later, Funes Mori fell back down to earth as he whiffed on a chance to make it 2-0 after breaking free of the Santos defense.
For the visitors, a goal-line clearance from Jesus Gallardo kept them off the scoresheet just minutes before Funes Mori unleashed his stroke of genius. A free kick from the left side found Julio Furch's head, and the Argentine headed past Marcelo Barovero. Luckily for Rayados, Gallardo leapt into action kicking the ball away just inches from the goal.
Though it appeared unlikely the game would end with just the one goal, Orozco parried away a close-range strike from Nicolas Sanchez in the 75th minute, while a wide open Furch was unable to head the ball away from Barovero just eight minutes before the game's end.
3. Home teams in advantage for the second leg
Cruz Azul's last home victory against Queretaro in Liga MX was in 2016. Despite the recent stumbles (excluding a 3-0 Copa win earlier this year), it seems more than reasonable to suggest that La Maquina will be able to get over the hump given their two-goal advantage.
Santos Laguna, on the other hand, will take on Monterrey with a one-goal deficit. The defending champions, however, have not lost to Rayados at the Estadio Corona in two years, meaning they have a more than decent opportunity to move forward should they be able to win on Saturday.
The only disadvantage for Santos at this point is the fact an away goal leaves them vulnerable. In their last 44 matches against each other, dating back to 2003, the splits between Santos Laguna and Monterrey have been remarkably similar: Santos has 13 wins to Monterrey's 14, with 17 draws between both teams.