Club América entered the weekend in crisis and exited with calm, though it didn’t take much to pull-off the turnaround. All it needed was well-timed 1-0 rivalry win over an inner-city rival, with Cruz Azul falling at Estadio Azteca in Saturday’s Clásico Joven.
The derby’s name, meaning “young” or “juvenile,” is a bit of a misnomer, though it nods to the fact that Mexico’s two biggest teams, América and Chivas, have been battling each other longer, with Guadalajara rivals Chivas and Atlas at odds for even longer than that. Back in Mexico City, the Aguilas and La Maquina have played more than 150 times since first meeting in the summer of 1964, with América taking its 55th victory compared with 51 losses.
América striker Oribe Peralta’s name will be the newest one written in rivalry’s history books. It was the Mexican international’s goal that gave the home side its victory, with the forward making his return from injury to dart past his defender to head home his early second half winner. His successful return is sure to be a welcome one for Americanistas, who’ve recently watched their team struggle for goals in a 3-0 CONCACAF Champions League defeat to Herediano and a 4-0 league loss at Veracruz .
But it’s the man who provided the cross for Peralta’s goal who had a bigger part in ending the club’s mini-crisis. Cruz Azul couldn’t copy with midfielder Rubens Sambueza, the man whose mazy runs with the ball drew one, two, sometimes three defenders helpless to take possession off the Argentine’s foot.
Well, perhaps it’s not fair to call Sambueza an Argentine. It’s accurate in the “that’s where he was born” sense, but he’s so beloved in Mexico that his naturalization was pushed through in October 2013 as former Aguilas boss Miguel Herrera attempted to get his winger into the Mexico national team. FIFA ultimately scuppered those plans, ruling matches played with Argentine youth national teams meant Sambueza couldn’t switch allegiances.
With far more enticing options at his beck and call for the Albiceleste, Gerardo Martino won’t be calling any time soon, but Sambueza was still international-quality Saturday. The 31-year-old’s aforementioned runs saw him brought down for six times by Cruz Azul, with three infractions committed in América’s attacking third. It’s no accident that 37 percent of Club América’s attacks came down the right side, where Sambueza was the seamless link between right back Paul Aguilar and forward Darwin Quintero.
It was a performance that showed Cruz Azul what it’s been missing this tournament, highlighting some of the folly of the club’s offseason decision to pursue forward Roque Santa Cruz instead of someone to pull the strings going forward. Santa Cruz is indeed in the headlines regularly, but so far it has been because of injuries and a lack of playing time. The former Bayern Munich and Blackburn striker came on in the 56th minute Saturday with Luis Fernando Tena’s men needing a goal, but he didn’t register a shot.
Despite Sambueza’s dominance, some credit must go to the Club América defense, which Gustavo Matosas deployed as a four-man unit instead of the three center backs and two wingbacks-look the club sometimes utilizes. Matosas won’t have to sell fans too hard on the change if his club can continue producing those results, though that will depend on the defense playing as well as it did Saturday. That won’t always be easy against clubs with stronger attacks (Cruz Azul’s has struggled all tournament). Thankfully, midfielder Daniel Guerrero’s play ing front of the back line gave América more reason for confidence.
After the match, the manager spoke broadly about getting back in the fans’ good graces by showing what the club is all about.
“América has two great virtues: a fan base that’s going to support until fatigue sets in and great players who are willing to give everything for the shirt. It can be a magic formula,” he said.
Two parts Sambueza, one part good defensive chemistry with four at the back, add a dash of Peralta, Aguilars to taste. América may have found a winning blend. But if the club’s truly to avert its crisis, all of those factors — the defense, midfield protection, Peralta’s return and Sambueza’s brilliance — will have to align, and soon. Mid-week, the team will be tasked with overturning the 3-0 Champions League deficit it earned in Costa Rica.
For now, though, the media speculation about dressing room disagreements and the coach not reaching the players can be put aside. In the wake of a derby win, the crisis treatment can stop. And Matosas will be incredibly thankful to Sambueza for helping that to happen.