Atlas strikes early then fends off game-long Cementeros pressure to advance

Atlas skipper Aldo Rocha (left) was his usually feisty self in midfield, harassing Cruz Azul players all night long to help the Zorros protect their 1-0 lead. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Atlas skipper Aldo Rocha (left) was his usually feisty self in midfield, harassing Cruz Azul players all night long to help the Zorros protect their 1-0 lead. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
Cruz Azul Atlas
Cruz Azul defender Juan Escobar lies on the Estadio Azteca turf lamenting his team’s missed opportunities. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Ninth-seeded Atlas scored in the game’s first 90 seconds at Estadio Azteca then flashed their championship-era defense to make that single Brian Lozano goal stand up and the Zorros sent eighth-seeded Cruz Azul crashing out of Wildcard Weekend.

Shortly after kick-off, Atlas turned upfield with possession and a quick, flowing move from right-to-left across the top of the box – Mauro Marotas-to-Julián Quiñones-to-Brian Lozano – was punctuated by “Huevo” who calmly curled a shot over Jesús Corona and inside the far post.

The Cementeros dominated possession throughout the game, but rarely managed to get a good look at goal despite spending an inordinate amount of time in the Atlas defensive third.

Cruz Azul buzzed around the box repeatedly, but couldn’t crack the Zorros defensive code. The Cementeros actually got off 17 shots, but only three were on target. And on those three occasions, Camilo Vargas was there to make sure his net remained unblemished.

Atlas nearly goes up 2-0

In minute 11, the “other” Funes Mori and Corona gifted Atlas with a great chance but the visitors failed to take advantage.

Cruz Azul defender Ramiro Funes Mori – not to be confused with his twin, Rogelio, the league’s No. 2 goal-scorer who plays for No. 1 seed Monterrey – mishit an overhead kick inside the box while facing his own goal. The ball squirted into the path of “Ozzi” Herrera who nodded the ball around Corona but banged a bouncing shot off the post. The rebound came to Quiñones at the top of the box but a retreating Juan Escobar blocked a rocket shot at the goal line.

Fortunately, Ignacio Rivero turned aside the ongoing threat and the Estadio Azteca crowd slowly recovered its breath. To have gone down 2-0 there would have been the death knell.

Corona was at fault for not coming off his line to corral the original ball that Funes Mori muffed. The veteran keeper had space and time, but instead allowed Funes Mori to make things worse.

Cruz Azul comes close

In minute 26, Rodrigo Huescas latched onto long pass behind the defense, cut into the box near the touch line, turned and found Augusto Lotti near the top of the box. The Argentine striker eluded two defenders and got off a nice shot, but Camilo Vargas came across for a flying save.

Moments later, Uriel Antuna sent Huescas deep into the box with a line-breaking pass but a chipped centering pass found no one.

A few minutes before halftime, Cruz Azul fans got a momentary rush that proved to be premature.

Rivero escaped down left flank then fired a long cross to Huescas who was charging in at the back post ahead of his marker. The Cementeros teenager could not redirect the pass inside the near post and the ball rippled the side netting on the outside, but the stadium special effects guy set off the “celebration” rockets behind the goal. That just made it a bit more embarrassing for Huescas.

Deep into first-half stoppage time, Atlas appeared to go up 2-0  when Manotas pumped home a left-footer from inside the box. However, after a 4-minute VAR review, the goal was annulled for offside.

Even though the field tilted toward the Atlas half most of the second half, Cruz Azul simply couldn’t shoot straight and the Zorros defense shut down most of the passing lanes into the box.

Vargas plays the hero

The Cementeros continued pressing the attack, switching from side-to-side and probing inside and outside.

In minute 84, Vargas came up with a Save of the Year candidate off a scything volley from Charlie Rodríguez that was ticketed for the upper right corner. Vargas moved laterally from right-to-left before lunging at full stretch and palming the shot over the crossbar. A spectacular effort.

The clock continued to tick with “La Máquina” in desperation mode when Atlas earned another breakaway. Corona managed to get a fingertip on a José Abella shot that kept the Cementeros’ hopes alive … but only briefly.

Next. León claws past Tigres to reach first-ever CCL final. dark

Atlas moves on to the quarterfinals after missing out on the playoffs entirely last season. The Zorros must await the outcome of the remaining three Wildcard Weekend matches to find out who they’ll face when the Liguilla kicks off next week.