A wide-open Liga MX could be the perfect recipe for Cruz Azul to end title drought
Cruz Azul has, infamously, become synonymous with finding ways to lose from winning situations, but evidence from Saturday's 0-0 draw with Club America suggests Pedro Caixinha's team is primed for a title charge.
La Maquina, without a Liga MX title since 1997, hit the woodwork twice and held America to just two shots on goal in a stalemate which pit the 2018 Apertura's best defensive team, Cruz Azul (11 goals conceded), against its best attacking unit, America (27 goals scored).
It was a battle of attrition in front of over 62,000 in the Azteca, a tactical affair between two teams playing matching formations and for the top spot in Liga MX. It made for a fascinating 90 minutes and a game billed as one of the most important of the season so far ended with third-place Cruz Azul looking the more secure against current leaders America. There certainly wasn't much to be discouraged by from Caixinha's team, apart from perhaps a lack of chances created in the second half.
The Azteca draw was the warm-up for Cruz Azul for Wednesday's Copa MX final against Monterrey and a chance to earn a trophy that would provide some momentum as the Apertura reaches its business end.
But there's another reason why La Maquina fans can be hopeful, whatever happens in the Copa MX final. Liga MX is generally known for its parity relative to other leagues, but the 2018 Apertura is proving to be even more difficult to define than usual.
After 14 rounds of games and with nine points still on the table, only three points separate the top five teams. To go even further, 16 of the 18 clubs still have a mathematical chance of making the top eight and the postseason.
There just hasn't been one outstanding team so far this Apertura, with the overall quality sliding compared to previous seasons.
First-place America is likely the favorite on paper and Las Aguilas' central midfield duo of Guido Rodriguez and Mateus Uribe is the best in Liga MX, almost guaranteeing America will compete in games. The attack -- led by the inconsistent Roger Martinez -- is far less of a certainty and was blunted all too easily by Cruz Azul. Add in the fact that Herrera's teams have never really been great in the postseason and Liga MX is as wide open as it has been in years.
Second-place Santos Laguna is perhaps the team Cruz Azul should fear the most.
Los Guerreros won the 2018 Clausura, but the sales of Nestor Araujo (Celta Vigo), Carlos Izquierdoz (Boca Juniors), Djaniny (Al-Ahli Saudi) and Jorge Villafana (Portland Timbers) appeared to herald a difficult Apertura, especially after coach Robert Siboldi left in early August after just three games.
But that hasn't happened. Instead, new signings Matheus Doria and Martin Nervo have slotted in at center-back and Uruguayan Jonathan Rodriguez has stepped up to replace Djaniny alongside in-form striker Julio Furch, the current favorite for player of the season.
Santos Laguna's 1-0 win over Monterrey on Friday owed a debt of gratitude to a monumental miss by Rayados striker Guillermo Madrigal, as well as the away side's injury crisis.
But there is nothing fortunate about Santos Laguna's overall home record in 2018. Santos have only lost once inside Estadio Corona in that time (15-1-3) and have scored 43 goals and conceded only 14 over 19 Liga MX games. Salvador Reyes' team deserves to be up in second and recognized as very real contenders for back-to-back championships.
In fourth, Pumas' 1-0 away win over Club Tijuana on Saturday was indicative of the Mexico City club's season. A late Gustavo Alustiza strike earned the three points, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that the victory had a certain amount of luck, given Tijuana's missed penalty and wastefulness in front of goal.
It is, however, time to give head coach David Patino praise for what he has achieved with what is far from the strongest squad in Liga MX.
Making up the rest of the playoff spots at present are Toluca, Monterrey, Morelia and Tigres.
All four have been regulars in the Liguilla hunt over recent seasons, but Tigres, down in eighth and barely fending off challengers Pachuca, Queretaro and Puebla, are far below where they should be.
If Liga MX didn't have a playoff structure, just five wins from 14 games would be considered a disastrous return for a club still with the league's strongest squad and a manager in Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti that many consider the best in Mexico.
All that considered, it still wouldn't be a surprise if Tigres find form and go on to win the Apertura given their quality. The fact the side has won the last four Apertura tournaments bodes well, but things don't appear to be right at the club. The squad and team may be strong, but it is also unbalanced. The likes of Enner Valencia and Eduardo Vargas have regularly been on the bench, while midfielder Jesus Duenas is playing left-back. Then there is the central midfield conundrum: Guido Pizarro and Rafael Carioca provide stability, but not much in the way of creativity for a team still dominating possession, but not creating enough chances.
A 2-2 home draw against Lobos BUAP -- in which both Tigres' goals came from goalkeeping errors from Antonio Rodriguez -- on Saturday rightly drew discontent in Estadio Universitario. The late equalizer from Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez again came from a set piece, which have become something of an Achilles heel for Tigres.
With so many of the opposition flailing, it begs the question: Why not Cruz Azul?