With each team now having one game remaining in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage much is still to be decided. For Cruz Azul, Real Salt Lake and Monterrey though this stage is yesterday’s news as they have done enough to reach the quarter-finals. There is an exciting final round of games to look forward to as the final qualifiers are decided.
The final Group A fixture between Cruz and RSL will be an opportunity to test some reserve team players as they can now look forward to their domestic leagues and the next round in the CONCACAF. The greater strength in depth of these two teams left them better able to cope with the rigours of domestic competition and international travel, and left Toronto FC and Arabe Unido unable to compete. Plus having strikers like Alvaro Saborio and Javier Orozco won’t have harmed their chances. RSL clinched their spot with a 1-1 draw in Toronto, they were boosted by the return of Argentinian playmaker Javier Morales who scored a dipping, swirling 25-yard free-kick to equalise the game. The last time Arabe Unido played Cruz Azul they lost 0-6 in Panama so a 2-0 loss in Mexico has to be looked on as some kind of improvement. The Panamanian 2010 Clausura winners have struggled in this group, their only points came from a solitary victory over Toronto. Toronto themselves are going through a transitional period after firing their manager Preki, and Director of Soccer Mo Johnston in September. The current Canadian Champions are out of the MLS playoff spots so it may be some time before we see them in this tournament again.
Group B though is still undecided with both qualifying spots up for grabs. The three teams still in with a shout are Santos Laguna, Columbus Crew and Municipal. Santos were the next school bullies in line to wallop the group whipping boys Joe Public 5-1 to move into top spot, while Columbus were beaten 2-1 by the Guatemalans. A win would have seen Columbus and Santos qualify but two goals from the current leading scorer in Guatemala, Guillermo Ramirez kept Municipal in with a shout. MLS fans remember him as being the player with the worst shooting percentage ever in the MLS when he played for the LA Galaxy, so his two goals in terrible conditions against an MLS side will have gone some way to revamping that perception. Liverpool-born Andy Iro scored the consolation goal for Columbus. In the final group games Santos are at home to Municipal while Columbus travel to Arabe Unido, a victory for Santos will send them and Columbus through to the next round.
In Group C the standout team Monterrey secured their path to the quarter-finals but lost their 100% record as they drew 2-2 against Saprissa. The result kept Saprissa ahead of Marathón in second place but only by a point. Los Morados defensive problems continued against Monterrey but they showed great spirit to come from behind twice. An own goal from Severo Meza and a diving header from Jose Mena got them on equal terms. Monterrey took the lead after 5 minutes with a well-taken goal from another promising young Mexican. 19 year old Luis Rodriguez scored on his CCL debut after previously only playing 59 minutes in the Mexican league, he took advantage of a gap in the Saprissa backline and ran on to a great through-ball between the centre-backs and had enough pace and composure to stay clear of the defenders and fire the ball past the out-rushing keeper. He looks quite a prospect. In the other group game Seattle took their first points in this tournament as they beat Marathón 2-0. Marathón still remain in with a chance of qualification and have to defeat Monterrey at home in the final group game and hope Saprissa don’t win. Saprissa travel to Seattle and have to win to be sure of qualification. Seattle and Saprissa play the day before Marathón so a victory for the Costa Ricans will render the other group game meaningless.
Group D shows a change from the situation 2 weeks ago as favourites Toluca are now in third spot, having been overtaken by Puerto Rico Islanders and Olimpia. The Hondurans produced a great performance to beat FAS 1-4 in El Salvador helped by two goals from Uruguayan forward Ramiro Bruschi and another from Anthony Lozano. Lozano spent 10 days on trial at Tottenham Hotspur this summer before returning to Honduras, there were rumours that he had actually signed for Spurs but the deal appears to be on hold. Olimpia have a record of producing great young players that eventually move to the Premier League, Hendry Thomas, Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have already made the switch to England. There were good performances from three young players already on the radar of Premier League teams, Lozano and Wigan Athletic’s Roger Rojas could also be joined by Oscar Boniek Garcia, a defensive midfielder who has already had trials with Paris Saint Germain and Wigan, and was named after IBWM favourite Zbigniew Boniek (if my google translation of this Polish news report is up to scratch…). Garcia has been ever present in this tournament for Olimpia, scoring once. Olimpia know that a point against PRI in their final game will be enough to guarantee qualification, while Toluca have to beat FAS and hope the other result goes their way.