Thursday April 24th, 2014

Mario Pavone (back) celebrates the goal that lifted Cruz Azul to the CONCACAF Champions League title. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters) Mario Pavone (back) celebrates the goal that lifted Cruz Azul to the CONCACAF Champions League title. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Cruz Azul and Toluca entered the CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday as the No. 1 and 2 teams in Liga MX, respectively, and that’s how they finished the continental competition as well. A 1-1 draw at Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Díez was good enough for Cruz Azul to win the title on away goals after a scoreless finish a week prior.

The away side received a positive omen before the match, as CONCACAF reduced starting goalkeeper Jesús Corona’s three-match suspension to a one-game ban. Corona was punished for his part in an altercation with Club Tijuana players after the final whistle in the teams’ semifinal second leg.

Cruz Azul’s win is its sixth continental competition victory, making it the winningest side in CONCACAF’s top tournament. It is the first time the club has won the Champions League, with five previous victories in the defunct Champions Cup, the last of which came back-to-back in 1996 and 1997.

Despite making its reputation for stout defense, Cruz Azul started the match firmly on the attack. It paid off just before halftime, with Argentinean striker Mariano Pavone opening the scoring. The ball switched from Joao Rojas on the right wing to Marco Fabián on the left, and Fabián played a one-touch pass back into the middle into the path of Pavone, who was unmarked and tapped in easily for a 1-0 lead.

Curiously, Toluca coach José Cardozo opted to start with the Champions League’s leading goalscorer, Raul Nava, on the bench. Nava eventually jogged onto the field to begin the second half, which Toluca largely controlled, needing two goals to best Cruz Azul’s away strike.

In the 57th minute, Toluca won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. On a second ball whipped in after Cruz Azul’s weak initial clearance, Toluca leading scorer Pablo Velázquez (21 goals in league play) put his header from on top of the six-yard box over the crossbar.

It would not be the last time the Paraguayan missed a clear chance at goal.

Six minutes after that chance, Toluca finally broke through. Substitute Edgar Benítez slammed home a shot from a tight angle, high and inside Corona’s near post. After a failed clearance from inside the penalty area, Brazilian midfielder Wilson Tiago Mathías fed a through ball into the left side of the area, where Benítez had just pulled back into an onside position before receiving the ball.

The rest of the game largely took place within 30 yards of the Cruz Azul goal, as the home team tried frantically to find a winner. Corona denied Velázquez on another opportunity in the 73rd minute after a free kick clipped into the area.

Benítez broke through on goal soon after and went down, but Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez kept his whistle silent, immediately waving at Benítez to get up. In stoppage time, Corona had to come up big one last time, fighting off a long-range shot from Miguel Ponce that deflected off center back Luis Perea’s head while Corona was in mid-dive.

As he was all game, Velázquez was on hand to pounce on the rebound -- and as he time and again, he missed the target with one final, massive chance to win the game for Toluca. With the draw, Cruz Azul has conceded one or fewer goals in 16 of its last 18 Champions League games, including the last 11 straight matches.

Cruz Azul will represent CONCACAF at the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup, held Dec. 10-20 in Morocco. Despite winning six continental competitions, one more than Club América, La Máquina has never participated in the club world championship.

The CONCACAF Champions League title also marks another major victory for Cruz Azul coach Luis Fernando Tena, who led Mexico to a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. This is his fourth stint at Cruz Azul, where he also won the Primera División winter championship in 1997.

Watch highlights of the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League final below:

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