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Liga MX W2W4: Leon's playoff chase

Liga MX
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How Club America's record Liga MX title, Cruz Azul's latest loss gripped Mexico City

Club America's Liga MX championship put the spotlight of the sport back on Mexico City.
Club America's Liga MX championship put the spotlight of the sport back on Mexico City.

MEXICO CITY -- The T-shirts emblazoned with "Cruz Azul 2018 Apertura champion" hung on the pegs of the unofficial merchandise stands. Fifty meters away, huge banners draped from the roof of the Estadio Azteca radiated positive vibes for Cruz Azul.

"It isn't 90 minutes, it's our history," read one, with another alongside it: "We won't try to do it, we will achieve it!"

The signs of Cruz Azul's longing for a title remained on display even as La Maquina fans filed out of the stadium, some in tears, having lost 2-0 against Club America in the second leg of the Liga MX final on Sunday evening.

This was a Mexico City derby final that gripped the nation's capital.

Estadio Azteca, home to Club America, and as of this year also Cruz Azul, is considered one of the sport's sacred cathedrals.
Estadio Azteca, home to Club America, and as of this year also Cruz Azul, is considered one of the sport's sacred cathedrals.

The storylines were natural and didn't force journalists to stretch. On one side, Club America and its "hate me more" attitude was looking to return to the top of Mexican soccer's pyramid by winning title No. 13 and move past Chivas' 12.

And, as if anyone involved in Mexican football needed reminding, Cruz Azul went into Sunday's Liga MX Apertura final second leg hoping (and in many cases praying) to end a 21-year title drought.

But as the cleaning operation swung into action outside Estadio Azteca -- the spiritual home of Mexican soccer -- the forlorn "Cruz Azul champion, glory is back" T-shirt sellers wondered what to do with their leftover stock. Meanwhile, America had thoroughly deserved the title and their fans headed to the Angel de la Independencia to celebrate into the early hours.

There, yellow-clad fans cheered and danced around one of Mexico's iconic monuments, celebrating not only another Liga MX title, but one that rubbed Cruz Azul fans' faces in more misery, with La Maquina suffering a sixth disappointment in a final since 1997 without a league championship.

"A salty rabbit, my faithful pet," sung America fans, referring to Cruz Azul's mascot in one of the cleaner and more bizarre chants pointing to their domination of their neighbors.

As with any rivalry, there was tension and isolated incidents before and after the game, but after the horrors of the Copa Libertadores final between Argentine rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors, the Mexico City derby stood out in contrast for its openness. The series also restored some pride in a stadium that had suffered embarrassment a month earlier when the NFL had to cancel Monday Night Football due to the state of the pitch.

And NBA organizers would have secretly bemoaned the fact that its regular-season games in Mexico were on the same days as the two-leg Apertura final being played in the same city. Even in a metropolitan area with a population of over 20 million, there's only so much room in newspapers and in the Mexican sporting press for basketball when the Liga MX final is the main show in town.

Couples wearing rival shirts walked into the Azteca arm in arm, the taco stands packed to capacity with fans of both sides in what for many is a pregame ritual outside the stadium that has hosted two World Cup finals.

But while America took the trophy and had the last laugh, it was Cruz Azul -- owned by a cement company of the same name -- that had been the main protagonist in this final. Cruz Azul's Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha described potentially winning a title with his team "the biggest challenge in Mexico football."

To put that in perspective, the last time Cruz Azul had reached a final, back in the 2013 Clausura, it was also against rivals Club America, and the team collapsed so badly that it is remembered as one of the most famous games in the history of Mexico's first division. Cruz Azul was 2-0 up on aggregate with only two minutes to play in the second leg against an America side that was down to 10 players, when center-back Aquivaldo Mosquera pulled one back in the 88th minute. Then America goalkeeper Moises Munoz headed in with seconds remaining to spark mayhem. America went on to win on penalties, and coach Miguel Herrera's celebration went viral around the world.

The collapse encapsulated the very notion of the verb "cruzazulear" -- basically "to bottle it or to get in winning situations and fail to see it through." It's a verb that is now a fairly common word in Mexico's sporting vernacular.

Cruz Azul fans believed this was finally the season to break the curse. Their wait goes on.
Cruz Azul fans believed this was finally their season to break the curse. The wait goes on.

"The day of truth has arrived," read the headline in one newspaper in Mexico City on the Sunday before the second leg, seemingly in an attempt to wipe the slate clean after a hard-fought, but turgid 0-0 tie in the first leg.

At least two restaurants in Mexico City had offered "free beer" if Cruz Azul won, although it was difficult to decipher whether that was because they expected the team to lose, or simply wanted to garner some publicity, or most likely both.

The night before the game, some 300 Cruz Azul fans gathered outside the team hotel in the south of the city, urging Cruz Azul to deliver. Goalkeeper and captain Jesus Corona came down from his room to give them a speech.

"Tomorrow we complete an objective," Corona stated. "And we'll do it together. We appreciate the unconditional support a lot, and tomorrow we'll give everything for you."

There was wild applause and, with the benefit of hindsight, obvious irony that America's crucial opening goal from Edson Alvarez was largely the fault of the 37-year-old Mexico international.

Meanwhile, America and its fans appeared unflustered, as if winning was expected. That being said, fans did find time to print signs reading Arrimados, loosely translated as "scroungers," poking fun at the fact Cruz Azul is currently renting America's home stadium after leaving Estadio Azul last season.

"America is obligated to go and win the title," said coach Herrera on the eve of the second leg. "The demands would change in another team. If I wasn't here [at America], I could play with the necessities of [Cruz Azul], but I can't."

But this final wasn't just Club America versus Cruz Azul, it was Club America versus everyone. Pumas have the fiercest Mexico City rivalry with America, and their fans' pride had been shattered by the 6-1 defeat in the semifinal second leg the previous weekend.

"We're all backing Cruz Azul," said taxi driver and Pumas fan Raul. "America winning would be unbearable."

He wasn't the only one sharing that sentiment.

Chivas nation -- the club claim 40 million fans, a significant amount of whom live in Mexico City despite the club being located in Guadalajara -- was silently urging on Cruz Azul to prevent America from overtaking Chivas for the record number of league titles.

In defeating Cruz Azul in front of a total of 130,484 fans over the two legs, America stuck it not only to its immediate Clasico Joven opponent -- as the Cruz Azul versus America derby is known -- but also Pumas (Clasico Capitalino) and Chivas (Clasico Nacional).

It was too much for ESPN commentator Alvaro Morales, who announced after the final that he could no longer take being a Cruz Azul supporter and swapped his allegiance to Club America.

"The city has an owner," read one Club America fan shirt on a stand outside the Azteca. "13. Hate me more."

Of all the boastful slogans surrounding the final, it ended up being the most fitting.

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