The Mexican national team may be struggling mightily for form at the moment, but the country’s clubs are continuing to dominate the regional scene. The nation’s representatives have reigned supreme in the CONCACAF Champions League in recent times and following this week’s semi-finals, the tournament will see yet another all-Mexican showpiece, the third in the last four seasons.
At the end of two dramatic ties, both of which were decided in the final seconds, Cruz Azul and Atlante went forward to the final and will now fight it out for the right to represent the region at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009.
Islanders go down fighting
The first semi-final pitted tournament revelations Puerto Rico Islanders against one of the CONCACAF Zone’s traditional heavyweights, Cruz Azul. The outsiders defied the odds in the first leg, pulling off an unexpected 2-0 win at home in Bayamon to leave the Mexicans with much to do in Tuesday’s return leg in Mexico City.
Putting their league troubles to one side, Los Celestes went on the offensive from the off in a bid to reduce the deficit. The Puerto Ricans were waiting for them, however, packing the midfield and frustrating their opponents with some stout defensive work. Their task was made easier when the Mexicans were reduced to ten men following the dismissal of Paraguayan midfielder Cristian Riveros on 32 minutes.
Undeterred, Cruz Azul continued to press and reduced the deficit on the stroke of half-time when Pablo Zeballos fired home from just outside the area. But when a second tie-levelling goal failed to materialise after the break, coach Benjamin Galindo turned to the bench and his 21-year-old secret weapon Javier Orozco.
The top scorer in this year’s competition, Orozco has played a vital part in his side’s Champions League run despite failing to win a regular starting place in the league. Handed the task of keeping his club in the competition, Orozco did just that by making it 2-0 seven minutes from time.
No sooner had the hosts forced extra time than the Puerto Ricans took the aggregate lead, Sandy Gbandi scoring with a spectacular long-range strike just two minutes into the first period. Back came the Mexicans, though, with Cesar Villaluz putting them 3-1 ahead on the night just minutes later. And when the tie went to penalties, Orozco held his nerve to slot home the decisive spot-kick and give Cruz Azul a 4-2 shootout win.
More late drama
Mexican rivals Atlante and Santos Laguna served up an equally dramatic denouement in the other semi-final second leg, played in Cancun on Wednesday evening. Santos went into the match holding a narrow 2-1 advantage, but were determined not to sit on their lead as the game got off to a frantic start.
It was the home side who struck first when front man Rafael Marquez scored four minutes before half-time to put the Iron Colts ahead on the away-goals rule. Santos then surged forward after the interval and were rewarded with an away goal of their own when Mexican international Matias Vuoso found the back of the net with a fierce cross-shot. Back came Atlante, with Venezuelan international Giancarlo Maldonado producing a lovely finish moments later to level the tie at 3-3.
As the match went into stoppage time, Atlante midfielder Gabriel Pereyra was brought down in the box, Marquez converting the spot-kick to put the Colts back in front. The drama was still not over, however, and Federico Vilar prevented the visitors from taking the tie into extra time by somehow keeping out Daniel Luduena’s fierce strike.
Having successfully negotiated a brace of incident-packed ties, Cruz Azul and Atlante will go head to head in the two-legged showpiece at the end of this month, with the winners lining up alongside their fellow continental champions in the UAE in December.