Cruz Azul are Liga MX champions, breaking their 23-year curse
Sunday night’s playoff final was an emotional night for many of the players and fans of one of Mexico’s historic clubs.
The Estadio Azteca is home to many memorable moments in soccer history, like Pele’s Brazil and Diego Maradona’s Argentina winning the World Cup on that field in 1970 and 1986, respectively.
Cruz Azul’s victory over Santos Laguna in the Guardianes 2021 playoff final will be remembered by Mexican fans in the same light as those World Cup finals because of the story behind the championship.
Liga MX decided to rebrand their Clausura and Apertura (Fall and Spring) tournaments to Guardianes (Guardians) 2020 and 2021to honor sanitation personnel who have worked on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first leg of the final was played in front of a limited number of fans at the Estadio Corona in Torreón, Coahuila. Cruz Azul defeated Santos Laguna 1 - 0 in that match, but supporters knew they could not go back to Mexico City with confidence despite being favorites, because of previous disappointments.
One of Mexico’s “Big 4” sides, has not won a league title in nearly 23 and a half years, but have reached six finals in that time.
It also seems as if only the league title has been escaping their grasp, since they have won two domestic cups and two renditions of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Finances and lack of quality players can also not be blamed for their league title drought.
According to Transfermarkt Cruz Azul’s current squad is valued at $70.62 million, which makes them the third-most expensive team in Mexico’s top flight.
The team is also owned by Cemento Cruz Azul, one of Latin America’s largest cement producing companies. This is where the side’s nicknames of “The Machine” and “the cement mixers” comes from.
Losing in dying minutes of a playoff game or giving up a comfortable lead is what this team is famous for, and opposition fans make sure to remind them of this.
“Cruzazulear” or “I Cruz Azuled it” is the term given to these moments and it has made the club’s name become synonymous with failure.
No final was more painful than the 2013 Clausura second leg in the Azteca.
The Machine did enough to defeat derby rivals Club América, another one of Mexico’s “big four sides,” in Estadio Azul, which was their old home field. A header from legendary club midfielder Christian “El Chaco” Giménez gave them a one goal advantage going into the grand final.
Victory also seemed on the horizon in the initial 20 minutes with América having a player sent off and Cruz Azul increasing their lead to 2 - 0 on aggregate.
In the last five minutes of the match the Eagles came back and scored two goals. That took the final to a penalty shootout that the Machine eventually lost.
Ahead of the Clausura 2020, former Cruz Azul goalkeeper Robert Dante Siboldi was brought in to try and steer the side to glory.
He had a great start to the tournament by getting the best out of new signing Luis Romo and he promoted youth like Santiago Giménez, the son of El Chaco.
After 10 fixtures, they sat top of the league and in their last game it seemed as if the curse of Cruz Azul’s league title drought was starting to dissipate.
They faced Club América on March 15, and were leading midway through the second half thanks to a goal from Uruguayan striker Jonathan Rodríguez.
Six minutes of added time were given by the referee and in the last seconds, América was awarded a penalty. Once again, it was setting up to be another instance where Cruz Azul threw away a lead at the end of a game.
Audiences were left surprised after veteran goalkeeper José de Jesús Corona saved the penalty and his team sealed their win. Fans were beginning to believe that this would be the tournament that delivered the ninth star on the club badge.
That night the Liga MX decided to suspend the regular season because of concerns spawning from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weeks of uncertainty followed and in late May, Liga MX officials decided that after the incomplete season, the league would end without having playoffs or declaring a winner.
Supporters of the cement mixers were outraged because major European leagues and the MLS were able to finish their competitions after a similar suspension. This made them feel as if they were robbed of a championship.
Siboldi was still at the helm for the Guardianes 2020 tournament, and was looking to continue the form his team had from the previous season.
They overcame a star studded Tigres side in the quarter-finals and that momentum propelled them to 4 - 0 win against Pumas in the first leg of the semi-finals.
Little did they know that they would be on the receiving end of another humiliating comeback.
Fans and commentators thought that there was no point in watching the second match given Cruz Azul’s dominance in the Azteca.
Pumas were determined to do the impossible, and they beat the Machine by the same scoreline.
Although they were tied on aggregate, Pumas went through to the final due to them finishing higher in the regular season standings.
Siboldi resigned following his team’s dramatic elimination from the tournament.
Rumors of Cruz Azul losing the match on purpose or players being paid to forfeit the game surfaced soon after the resignation.
“They had built a team to be champions but something happened against Pumas. Some players received calls. Some players were tempted by the ear. So I think there are many things to investigate,” said ESPN Deportes commentator Héctor Huerta.
Pumas went on to lose the final against Club León, the same team Cruz Azul defeated in 1997 to win their last championship.
Before 1997, the cement mixers endured another league title drought that lasted 17 years. Seven of their titles came between 1969 and 1980, known as the club’s golden age.
Replacing a coach like Siboldi was always going to be a difficult task since the team had developed a rhythm with him.
Hugo Sanchez, former Real Madrid striker who coached Pumas to two championships in 2004, was closely linked with the job. He had not coached in nearly 10 years but ultimately an agreement was not reached.
Juan Reynoso was not the first choice but he was entrusted to lead Cruz Azul for the Guardianes 2021 tournament.
He was captain for the last final they won in 1997, and he had coached league minnows Puebla to the quarter-finals in the previous season. Reynoso also achieved domestic success in his native Peru with two different teams.
They got off to a rocky start in the Guardianes 2021 regular season by losing their first two games, one of them came away to Santos Laguna in the first match, where they lost 1 - 0.
Cruz Azul then turned things around by going on a 12-game winning streak and were undefeated for the rest of the regular season. This resulted in them finishing top of the table with 41 points, three points clear of second place Club América.
Toluca and Pachuca were the opponents they faced in the playoff rounds.
An injury to their forward, Bryan Angulo, during the second leg of the quarter final tie against Toluca saw Giménez step in to fill the void, and his last minute goal was the decisive one that advanced Cruz Azul to the next round.
Pachuca had just dumped América out of the competition and their morale was soaring after drawing with the Machine at home in the first leg of the semi-finals.
Giménez scored another crucial goal and he was now 180 minutes away from achieving what his father worked so hard to do in eight-year stint at the club.
The trip to the Estadio Corona, home of Santos Laguna, was still a difficult one because of the history they have with Santos, and unfortunate events that happened hours before the match.
In the final of the 2008 Clausura the Machine lost to the team from Coahuila 3-2 across both games.
Days before the first match on Thursday night, May 27, it was confirmed that Ecuadorian striker Angulo was ruled out with an injury caused by a muscular tear to his calf.
Hours before kick-off, it was known that young midfield starlet Robert Alvarado would also miss the match against Santos due to wife suffering from a miscarage.
The 22-year-old was a pivotal piece of Reynoso’s system and had seven goal contributions over the course of the tournament.
Goalkeeper and club captain Corona wore Alvarado’s shirt as the teams lined up before the match started.
He rejoined with teammates to train ahead of Sunday’s grand final and was in the starting 11.
Romo capitalized on a lucky set of rebounds to put Cruz Azul ahead in the 71st minute. This gave them the advantage going back to the Azteca.
Fans were scared that the same demons that were present at previous finals were back to haunt them again. Santos were controlling possession in the second leg and their attacking midfielder, Diego Valdés, fired a rocket into Corona’s top right corner in the 37th minute.
Things were now level and spectators were beginning to see the Cruz Azul they were used to.
At halftime they made sure to regroup and rotations were made before the start of the half.
The team’s top goal scorer Rodríguez tied the game and the aggregate scoreline was now 2-1 in the 51st minute. A potential offside call was reviewed through video assistant referee, but fans finally felt relief after the goal was given.
Once the final whistle blew commentators and supporters said words that have not been uttered in nearly 24 years, “Cruz Azul are Liga MX champions.”
Corona got the chance to lift the trophy that has escaped him in the 12 years he has spent with the cement mixers.
Reynoso now has the claim to ending two title droughts at Cruz Azul. As a center back, he captained them to their 1997 championship and as a manager he came back to deliver glory in less than five months.
The day after the victory Reynoso gave his winners medal to one of his mentors, four-time Cruz Azul coach Enrique Meza.
Juan Reynoso dijo que la medalla de campeón que consiguió con @CruzAzul era para Enrique Meza. No pasaron ni 24 horas y ya se la llevó como agradecimiento a su apoyo incondicional a lo largo de su carrera como jugador, auxiliar y, ahora, director técnico @reynoso_fer pic.twitter.com/hfkRHZzwEM
— TUDN MEX (@TUDNMEX) May 31, 2021
Meza was the coach that brought him to Mexico in 1994 and when he coached Puebla in 2017, he called upon Reynoso to be his assistant.
Cruz Azul are still in the CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals, but now that they conquered the Liga MX after so long, their base cannot ask for much more.