Comeback at Cruz Azul hints Chivas may not be terrible

It was a tactic Chivas manager Chepo de la Torre had tried before. Mostly out of options in Saturday’s match at Cruz Azul, he turned to it again. Down 1-0 late, one of Mexico’s greatest clubs was in a position that’s become all too familiar – one of desperation. Without a result against La Máquina, de la Torre’s team would be even with Puebla near the bottom of the relegation table, with only recently-promoted Universidad de Guadalajara separating the Guadalajara giants from Liga MX’s relegation spot.

So, for the third time in the Clausura, de la Torre turned to Aldo de Nigris – the former Mexican international who’s only appeared in 15 matches this year. Goalless, the 31-year-old forward has yet to play a full 90 this season, but coming on for 15 minutes — his briefest cameo yet — de Negris “entered and did what he had to do,” as Chivas assistant coach Hector Real so simplistically explained it in his postmatch news conference.

What he had to do was score. Cruz Azul had started to withdraw — an understandable tactic for a team with the league’s best defense — allowing the visitors a number of chances. Yet, Chivas couldn’t get on the board. A free kick saved, a stop on the line and a wayward shot were all denied. La Máquina looked set to stay atop Liga MX’s standings.

That is until the 80th minute, when young attacker Carlos Fierro, himself a second-half addition, kept a long ball in play near the byline, pulling it onto his right foot and before corssing it into the box. That’s where de Negris, among a line of players at the edge of Jesús Corona’s six-yard box, was waiting to head in his first league goal in nearly a year.

On the road against an undefeated team, it would’ve been enough for Chivas to get the draw. The point would have kept the club above Puebla, a step away from harm should Leones Negros string together a few results. But three minutes later, after a weak foul call just beyond the left edge of Corona’s penalty box, Chivas had its chance.

Over the ball stood Marco Fabián, who only recently returned to Chivas after a year on loan with Cruz Azul. Even had he been involved in a little Martha Stewart-style insider trading with his former teammates, Fabián couldn’t have expected the two-man wall situated in front of him to inexplicably part, allowing his bending ball to loop inside the near post and past a hopeless Corona.

It was the kind of defensive error Cruz Azul has evaded for most of the season, an example of the momentary lapses separating good defenses from great ones. Though the last seven minutes were frenetic, Chivas held on for its third win of the Clausura, matching the embattled team’s total for the previous 17-game tournament.

It’s the type of result that could prove transformational, both in terms of Chivas’s Clausura and the club’s fight against relegation. The fact that an 11-time champion is even in this situation is sort of comically incongruous, like seeing Brett Favre schilling for copper bands to make your joints tough. Nevertheless, it has been a scrap for each point, with Leones Negros and Puebla running with similar point totals. The three points won this weekend could make a massive difference.

Luis Michel

Photo: AP Photo/Christian Palma.

In another context, the result’s emotional boost would be easy to overstate, but at a place like Chivas, where pressure is immense and happy moments are generally short-lived, the little changes could provide huge encouragement. The team is not only momentarily out of danger but in the position to make the Clausura’s postseason. That this weekend’s victory came away — at another historically big team, one that happened to be atop the table and had allowed only one goal – could become a source of confidence.

There are still issues to be fixed, but Chivas’ late attacking surge showed enthusiasm the club hasn’t seen in years. Fierro has been a flashpoint because of a simulation incident that drew a penalty earlier this, but he is the kind of attacking presence Chivas must have in its lineup. And if Chepo’s confidence in de Negris continues to be rewarded, his decision to keep players like Fernando Arce and Erick “Cubo” Torres out of the team could be vindicated.

“We needed this and even more against an undefeated team like Cruz Azul,” de Nigris told Esto,” We looked really good. It was important, and that’s going to help us continue on a good run. I believe it’s only one result, three points, and there’s a lot of the tournament left.”

De la Torre has this team playing better than past incarnations, even it that’s saying very little. But Chivas said a lot for itself in the last 10 minutes of Saturday’s win. Comeback victories at Cruz Azul aren’t something you associate teams fading toward the drop. Now the question is whether Chepo’s men can put the relegation fight in the past and set its sights on the playoffs.