Toluca and Cruz Azul will play the first leg of the Apertura 2008 final tonight at Estadio Azul in Mexico City. It should be a great matchup between two teams who are playing their best soccer of the year entering the game. They're doing it differntly, though, as Toluca has won by defense and key goals while Cruz Azul has overwhelmed their opponents with insurmountable goals.
Here's a look at each club entering tonight's game, which will be on Azteca America at 6 pm PT:
Los Diablos Rojos are trying to capture their first championship since the Apertura 2005 season. Toluca has been a monster for the past decade, having won championships in impressive fashion at the turn of the century. This team, though, is different. Defense is this team's strength as veteran goalkeeper Hernan Cristante has discovered the fountain of youth. Until allowing a goal in the second leg of the semifinal series against Santos, Cristante had gone 772 minutes without conceding a goal. Defender Paulo da Silva and Edgar Duenas lead this impenetrable defense.
Still, this team isn't exactly lacking firepower. Hector Raul Mancilla has been a find for Toluca this season. After coming over from Veracruz, Mancilla broke through with 11 goals in the regular season and another pair in the playoffs.
This team has been built on playoff success. Toluca won championships in Verano 98, 99 and 00 as well as Apertura 02 and 05 and also reached the final two other times in that span. That's five championships in the last 10 calendar years. This team knows what it takes for postseason success.
Because of their checkered past, few expected Cruz Azul to reach this stage again. La Maquina surprised many by overcoming obstacles to get to the final last season but here they are again. The club has been scoring goals at the right moments as 3-1 wins over Pumas and Atlante were enough to tilt the scales in their favor.
Cruz Azul have a balanced attack as midfielder Pablo Zeballos led the club with seven goals. However, Miguel Sabah, Cesar Villaluz, Nicolas Vigneri and Gerardo Lugo can all contribute with goals. So too can Gerardo Torrado, who is the team's heart and soul. Torrado, though, can play with reckless abandon quite often, and if he earns a yellow card tonight will be out of Sunday's return leg.
Like Toluca, Cruz Azul have own eight Mexican league titles. However, when Cruz Azul won number eight, Toluca had just three to their name. Cruz Azul's drought dates back to the Invierno 97 season, and many agonizing seasons have passed from then until now. Cruz Azul has limited postseason success to draw back on - their run to the final last year has to count for something - but the club needs to focus on the present and ignore the past. Otherwise, they stand no chance of success.