Cruz Azul eager to get small measure of payback against rivals América

América's No. 10 Diego Valdés (right) will be the focus of the América attack. It will be up to Juan Escobar (left) and the rest of the Cruz Azul defense to keep him in check. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images)
América's No. 10 Diego Valdés (right) will be the focus of the América attack. It will be up to Juan Escobar (left) and the rest of the Cruz Azul defense to keep him in check. (Photo by Mauricio Salas/Jam Media/Getty Images) /
Cruz Azul America M7
If Carlos Rodríguez (right) can hold his own in midfield against Álvaro Fidalgo (left), Cruz Azul might be able to pul off the upset. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

América has won two straight against Cruz Azul, including last year’s 7-0 beating that put an end to a six-game Cementeros unbeaten streak in the “Clásico Joven.”

And it is that 7-0 smackdown that truly represents a watershed moment in the psyche of “La Máquina Azul” and its fanbase.

The shellacking at Estadio Azteca – the worst ever in Cruz Azul’s illustrious history – was the nadir of a downward curve that begin almost immediately after the Cementeros won their ninth Liga MX title just over two years ago.

Cruz Azul has fired four coaches since then and current head man Joaquín Moreno is an interim manager for the second time. With the sputtering “Blue Machine” sitting in 17th place, América would appear to be the safe bet. Then again, this is a “Clásico.”

Mexico City rivals limp into Matchday 7

Cruz Azul would love nothing better than to rise from the ashes and pull off the upset of the early season, and América’s lingering injury issues sets the stage. But taking advantage of opportunity has not been a tool in the Cementeros’ arsenal for a couple of seasons now.

The Aguilas had five starters in bandages heading into the weekend, with star striker Henry Martín and central defender Néstor Araujo ruled out.

However, defender Sebastián Cáceres (broken nose) and wingers Alejandro Zendejas (thigh) and Jonathan Rodríguez (knee) have been included on André Jardine’s game-day roster.

Cáceres’ return following nasal surgery is in keeping with the schedule for his recovery while Zendejas went down with a thigh strain during last week’s match. As such, he might be held in reserve to avoid a setback.

Rodríguez played with knee issues most of the Clausura 2023 and his rehab from offseason surgery has been a bit slower than anticipated. So the former Cruz Azul stud is likely to be relegated to the bench.

Although Martin will be missed – he was the Liga MX MVP last season – scoring is not the issue for these Aguilas. Newcomer Julián Quiñones has been a real dangerman while playmaker Diego Valdés is fully fit and on tune. J-Rod’s replacement, Brian Rodríguez (no relation), has also been a pleasant surprise.

So it is the reappearance of Cáceres that could be the key to Saturday’s contest. The América defense has been disorganized and leaky without their two veteran center backs and general manager Santiago Baños has been frantically looking for reinforcements. (Israel Reyes has been a bit of a disappointment and fullback Emilio Lara was forced to deputize in the middle of the defense on one occasion … with dismal results).

In addition, right fullback Kevin Álvarez is unavailable after picking up a silly red card last week although some might argue (I am among this crowd) that it could be a blessing in disguise since Kevin’s attention to his defensive responsibilities is sometimes lacking.

Cruz Azul has everybody available

The Cementeros are coming off their first win of the Apertura 2023, a 2-1 win over title favorites Monterrey. That result marked the first time in 10 years that Cruz Azul had defeated the Rayados in Estadio Azteca. Even with the 3 points, the club remains in the Liga MX cellar.

“La Máquina” arrives to the Junior Classic with a full roster to choose from. Central defender Carlos Salcedo left the game against Monterrey with a thigh strain after only 25 minutes but has been cleared to play tonight.

Salcedo was the only doubt during the week so coach Moreno is free to send out his best line-up (no sarcasm intended).

That likely means a three-man back line (centered by Salcedo) with two wingbacks helping out while probing forward. Charlie Rodríguez and Erik Lira will have key roles in midfield where they’ll do battle with Álvaro Fidalgo and either Richard Sánchez or Jonathan dos Santos.

The only question marks will be at the top (Diber Cambindo or newly acquired Angel Sepúlveda) and between the posts where Andrés Gudiño and Sebastián Jurado have been alternating.

Cambindo and Sepúlveda have incentive to produce because they will likely find themselves facing competition soon enough, particularly if they don’t shine this weekend. With a 10-day FIFA break on the horizon and a Sept. 13 transfer deadline, Cruz Azul management can’t wait much longer to secure additional weapons, and they are actively recruiting.

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Daniel Quintero has been given the whistle for the Clásico Joven and the 33-year-old arbiter has been among the best officials of the season so far.