Champions League 2011-12: Road to the Title

Posted on April 25, 2012 11:58 pm

The normal convention here at BigSoccer is not to spoil results for those who may have planned on watching the game on tape delay, so fair warning: by clicking on the link for this entry, you agree that either 1) you know how the second leg of the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League Final ended, or 2) you have no problem with my revealing said result.

Now then…when Atlante and Cruz Azul played out a damp squib of a tournament-closer back in 2009, before a crowd thinned out by concerns over the H1N1 outbreak, the announcers on ESPN Latin North (Mexico and Central America) derisively passed around the question of whether this new CCL would ever truly matter to Mexican teams. Anyone who saw tonight’s cracker can rest assured: with the year-long campaign, extra competition from domestic rivals, and an appearance on the global stage awaiting the winner, the aztecas now show up at full force (at least in the knockout round), hungry for continental glory.

Based on personal observations, the question of whether a Monterrey-Santos Laguna rivalry exists depends on who you ask, with those in Torreon insisting that the clásico norteño belongs among the historic ones in Mexican football. Of course, with the second leg taking place at the Territorio Santos Modelo, the sellout crowd provided the appropriate atmosphere, booing and hissing every possession for the rayados and cheering on each successive wave of guerrero assaults on Jonathan Orozco’s goal. The Monterrey netminder may have been lucky to remain on the field after the referee adjudged him to have handled a shot outside of his area (he only received a yellow), but Orozco made the most of his good fortune, knocking away a number of fierce attempts from Carlos Darwin Quintero, “Guti” Estrada and Cristian Suarez. Just when Monterrey thought they could make it to halftime scoreless, though, Daniel Ludueña received a pass from Quintero just outside the box and ripped his shot high and beyond Orozco’s reach to halve the deficit.

Sangos Laguna kept up their high-octane attack to begin the second 45, and joint top-scorer Oribe Peralta cleaned up a rebound to even the series. Mission accomplished, correct? Not quite: with the Final tied on aggregate and away goals, the next team to score would eliminate the possibility of overtime, and the hosts would be obligated to win outright if Monterrey put themselves on the scoresheet. So it was that with nine minutes left, Neri Cardozo (a particular target of the crowd’s ire) collected the ball from Walter Ayovi, advanced towards the Santos goal and took a shot that deflected off of Rafael Figueroa, past Oswaldo Sanchez and in. The knockout blow flattened Santos Laguna’s morale; it would be unfair to bring up their recent record of tripping up at the finish line in the domestic league, but Quintero and co. took their foot off the pedal after evening the aggregate score and struggled to switch back to desperation mode after Cardozo’s series-winner.

In spite of missing the influential presence of Humberto Suazo, Monterrey demonstrated their experience and composure in pressure situations by picking themselves up and hunting an away goal to ice the series (how things would have been different if Darwin Quintero had called his own number and scored in the Estadio Tecnologico last week). Appropriately, they finished the Champions League the same way in which they qualified: beating Santos Laguna for a trophy.

Three curious aspects of this series merit consideration: first, Victor Manuel Vucetich validated his “King Midas” nickname by directing an attack-minded Monterrey to back-to-back continental titles, stretching his run of Finals seen-and-conquered to an astonishing 12. Furthermore, the rayados successfully negotiated the most difficult path possible to the championship, knocking out three Mexican teams back-to-back in the knockout round (a slate of opponents that anyone else in the tournament would have labeled “death row”). On the other hand, their undefeated streak against domestic opponents in the CCL ended tonight at nine matches, although that particular statistic will hardly sully the evening.

The newly-crowned bicampeones will now prepare for the Mexican Clausura playoffs; unless they reach the Final, the regiomontanos will watch the next Champions League on TV. More importantly, though, they have earned themselves a shot at redemption in December, when they will return to Japan for the 2012 Club World Cup. Hopefully Vucetich will take lessons from Monterrey’s horror run during the second half of 2011 and manage his side to a performance more representative of their quality.

A couple of comments on the tournament as a whole: while the Puerto Rico Islanders and their giant-killing antics were missed in the group stage, I would have no problem calling this CCL the best one yet. MLS teams finally lost their fear of playing in Mexico, every group remained competitive until the very last matchday, and both Isidro Metapan and Toronto FC stunned the region by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time. Once again, however, Mexican teams laid down the law when it mattered most: the underwhelming Pumas tied Metapan to the whipping post, and Santos Laguna drowned Seattle and Toronto in goals at the TSM. Unfortunately, the next Champions League will not kick off for three months; until then, here on The Regional Review we will follow along as the last 12 berths are handed out in Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, more than enough to keep us occupied until the World Cup returns in June.

Finally, a heartfelt congratulations to the best team in our corner of the world:

CF Monterrey (MEX)

Qualification: MEX1, 2010 Apertura champion (2-0 aggregate over Pumas UNAM in the semifinals, 5-3 aggregate over Santos Laguna in the Final)

2011-12 CCL Group D:

5-0 @ Herediano (CRC)
0-1 vs. Seattle Sounders (USA)
0-1 @ Comunicaciones (GUA)
3-1 vs. Comunicaciones (GUA)
1-0 vs. Herediano (CRC)
2-1 @ Seattle Sounders (USA)

Finish: 1st place, 12 points

Quarterfinals:

3-1 @ Monarcas Morelia (MEX)
4-1 vs. Monarcas Morelia (MEX)
7-2 aggregate

Semifinals:

3-0 vs. Pumas UNAM (MEX)
1-1 @ Pumas UNAM (MEX)
4-1 aggregate

Finals:

2-0 vs. Santos Laguna (MEX)
1-2 @ Santos Laguna (MEX)
3-2 aggregate

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