Holders Cruz Azul appear poised to defend title

Captain Jesús Corona hoists the trophy after Cruz Azul defeated León to claim its third Campeón de Campeones Cup. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Captain Jesús Corona hoists the trophy after Cruz Azul defeated León to claim its third Campeón de Campeones Cup. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /
Cruz Azul beats Leon
Jonathan Rodríguez (#21) runs around the back of the net after scoring Cruz Azul’s opening goal. Teammate Santi Giménez (#29) prepares to chase him down to celebrate. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

Liga MX champs Cruz Azul claimed its first Campeón de Campeones trophy since 1974 with a solid 2-1 victory over León in Carson, California.

The two most-recent Liga MX champions (León won the Guardianes 2020 title) played an entertaining match slightly marred by the sub-par performance of ref Luis Enrique Santander.

Jonathan “Cabecita” Rodríguez bagged both goals for the Cementeros while new Esmeralda Santiago Ormeño narrowed the deficit in minute 82, but “La Fiera” were unable to find the equalizer despite playing with a man advantage over the game’s final 15 minutes.

With the win, Cruz Azul qualifies to play in the Campeones Cup – a nascent contest pitting the current MLS title-holder against the winner of the Liga MX Champions Cup. The Cementeros will face off with the Columbus Crew on Sept. 29 at a location to be determined.

Cruz Azul shrugs off absences

The Cementeros took the field without three starters who are on national team duty. Playmaker Orbelín Pineda is with El Tri at the Gold Cup, while winger Roberto Alvarado and midfield stud Luis Romo are in Tokyo with El Tri Olímpico.

Also missing was starting left fullback Adrián Aldrete who is nursing a leg injury.

“La Fiera” was playing without starting goalie Rodolfo Cota and defender Osvaldo Rodríguez, both of whom are on Mexico’s Gold Cup roster. Newly acquired back-up keeper Iván Vázquez acquitted himself quite well. Also unavailable was midfielder Santiago Columbatto who is in Tokyo with the Argentine team.

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Cementeros skipper Jesús Corona was called on to make an early save as Cruz Azul was under pressure from the outset. León appeared a bit more nimble and was crisp with its passing in the final third. They also pilfered a few passes with pressing tactics, one such interception turning into a nice chance for Emanuel Gigliotti.

“La Máquina Azul” generated little offense, with Bryan Angulo thrice losing possession by forcing solo runs into the box. In minute 38, León defender Andrés Mosquera hit the woodwork with a bicycle kick off a corner kick scramble.

Santi Giménez came on for Angulo to open the second half and the Cruz Azul offense came alive. The Cementeros were more patient with possession and “Cabecita” was finding room as Giménez flitted around forcing the León back line to move more.

Fifteen minutes after the restart, “Cabecita” found the back of the net. “Pol” Fernández released fullback Juan Escobar down the right flank and his low cross was met by the Cruz Azul “goleador” at the near post.

Seven minutes later, the Uruguayan had doubled the Cruz Azul lead. “Cabecita” was sent in alone on goal thanks to a slick fast break that started with a goal kick from Corona. Unmarked at the left sideline, fullback Ignacio Rivero headed the goal kick forward where León defender José David Ramírez deflected it toward his own goal. Giménez chased it down, nodded it forward and flicked it back across his body into the box where “Cabecita” was first to get there. Four touches (five if you count Ramírez’s unfortunate participation) to go the length of the field. 2-0 Cruz Azul.

With 10 minutes to go, Yoshimar Yotún was shown his second yellow card, putting Cruz Azul a man down. It didn’t take long for “La Fiera” to take advantage. Five minutes after coming on as a sub, Santiago Ormeño fired home from the top of the box.

The final minutes of the match saw León press forward, patiently trying to break down the Cruz Azul defense. In minute 87, there was a wild scramble inside the box but no Esmeraldas player could get his foot to the ball.

The game had an entertaining rhythm and attractive play for a “preseason game” but it did end on a chippy note. Ref Santander went to the video screen and saw enough to red card León youngster Fidel Ambriz for a punch to the chest of Giménez away from the play.

With the final whistle, the Cementeros claimed their third Campeón de Campeones and their first since May 26, 1974, when “La Máquina” defeated América 2-1.

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The two teams now turn their attention to the Apertura 2021. León opens Saturday on the road at Pachuca while Cruz Azul kicks off its title defense Monday night against visiting Mazatlán FC.