Estadio Azteca will be the scene for what promises to be a thrilling Liga MX Apertura final, with two rivals featuring countering ideologies and plenty of history squaring off for the title.
For the fourth time in Liga MX’s history, there will be a Clasico Joven final, as Mexico City rivals Club America and Cruz Azul will fight for the Apertura title with Estadio Azteca serving as host for both legs.
After finishing in first place during the regular season, Cruz Azul defeated Queretaro and Monterrey (going through after a 1-1 aggregate result due to a higher finish in the standings) in the playoffs thus far, while No. 2-seed Club America had to overcome a resilient Toluca side before finishing off Pumas in the semifinals.
In many ways, you could not write a better script for a final. Aside from the geographical and historical rivalry, this two-legged battle (Thursday and Sunday) promises to provide drama due to the clubs' overwhelming differences in philosophy.
On one side, you have Cruz Azul (nicknamed La Maquina), which ended with the best defensive record in the league thanks to key players such as experienced center back Pablo Aguilar and veteran Mexico national team goalkeeper stopper Jesus Corona. Under manager Pedro Caixinha, who has redeemed his career after a recent failed stint with Scottish side Rangers, Cruz Azul is a regimented side, where possession is secondary to protection. Caixinha's attention to detail is to the point of obsession where he leaves little to chance and plays no favorites.
Then there’s Club America, carrying the confidence and ego of a Hollywood movie star. Managed by the exuberant, larger-than-life Miguel “Piojo” Herrera, Las Aguilas are an offensive juggernaut and ended the season with the best scoring record in the league.
In the semifinals, America embarrassed Pumas on a 7-2 aggregate, and the alarming fact for Cruz Azul is that Herrera’s squad doesn’t rely on a specfic goalscorer. Despite the services of forwards such as Mateus Uribe, Roger Martinez, Oribe Peralta and Henry Martin, the club also has gotten attacking contributions from center back Bruno Valdez.
In the midfield, Guido Rodriguez is a key reason why the team is also able to compete physically, while U.S. international Joe Corona also offers some protection when America goes forward. Then there’s 18-year-old prodigy Diego Lainez, who started the last game in order to offer more of a direct approach out wide. How Herrera deals with him in the final is up for debate, but Lainez, who’s a winger by trade but could really play anywhere in the midfield, is a ridiculous talent and could be a difference-maker on the big stage.
For Cruz Azul, this final is also about redemption, as Caixinha hopes to heal the club’s wounds of the 2013 Clausura final when Cruz Azul lost to Club America in the most dramatic of fashions.
Playing with 10 men and down 2-0 on aggregate with 10 minutes remaining in the second leg, Las Aguilas needed a miracle to take it to extra time (away goal rules don’t count in the final), and that’s when insanity happened. Minutes after pulling back a goal, America’s goalkeeper, the now-retired Moises Muñoz, scored on a deflected header in the 92nd minute. After a goalless extra time, America won in a penalty shootout and secured its 11th title (this year, it searches for a record 13th), leaving Cruz Azul, which still has not won a league title since 1997, devastated. The final was recorded as the most watched final in league history.
This edition is a different story, however, and a different Cruz Azul. The squad is made up of talent and experience, and it’s more than capable of standing up against the offensive forces of Club America.
Herrera is a proponent of direct play, encouraging offensive carelessness, while Caixinha wants to beat opponents by defending and minimizing their chances at goal. The true battle will be ultimately decided not by history, but by ideology, as two teams with very different strategies face off inside Mexico’s soccer cathedral. And because of all this, Liga MX’s 2018 Apertura final looks to be turning into a perfect storm. All that’s left to sort is finding out which side can ride it out.