A task too tall: Lacking the goals, CF Montréal bows out of Champions League against Cruz Azul at the quarter-final stage 

CF Montreal continued their journey through the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League versus Cruz Azul on Wednesday. Here is our match report from that one.

Cruz Azul made the trip to Montreal on Wednesday for the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League clash. 

The Mexican side came in with a 1-0 advantage in the tie, thanks to Uriel Antuna’s goal one week prior in Mexico City. Cruz Azul was a notch above the visiting blue, white and black in the first leg, and perhaps even felt as though they should have extended their advantage at their home ground. The same teams took the field for the conclusive fixture, but one important variable was very changed: the location.

Estadio Azteca is one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world, let alone North America, and also presents important physical challenges, notably an altitude of 2 200 meters, enough to suffocate many opponents. Wednesday’s match, however, was held in very different circumstances. Montreal’s Stade Olympique has its own history, but it’s the indoor stadium’s carpet which gets most visitors. The surface barely even resembles grass in colour, and makes for bounces which will stun any professional used to playing on well-kept natural pitches.

Coming into this decisive encounter, CF Montréal had had a two-faced start to the season. In the CONCACAF Champions League, an inspired performance at home in the Round of 16 dispatched another Liga MX side, Santos Laguna, and exorcized some long-lasting demons among the Montreal faithful. On the other hand, the first three matches of the MLS season haven’t produced much to get excited about, much less any results, as Montreal is yet to grab even a single point there. On this night in the tournament of the continent’s elite, Wilfried Nancy’s side hoped to make its fans forget about its form in the league, however, by attempting to take down one of Mexico’s best.

During the warm-ups it was already evident that the home side was more suited to the surface, as the Cruz Azul players struggled to control balls skipping on the turf. CF Montréal hoped that they had the conditions needed for a comeback of the sort they managed against Santos Laguna.

Just like they did in that match, Montreal started the game at a high tempo, moving the ball quickly from back to front, and making it skip around on the turf in an effort to make the opposition uncomfortable. Despite Montreal setting the tempo, Cruz Azul did find their footing and in the opening 15 minutes already showed signs of danger.

The Mexican club troubled CF Montréal with direct play forward in the first leg, and the same happened on this night. In the 15th minute the first great opportunity of the game came, as Santiago Giménez was played forward, and set up Urial Antuna with a rolling pass across the area. The Mexican was denied from 10 yards out however, with Sebastian Breza getting his right foot to the shot.

If the “Azul” chants which periodically echoed off of the famously unopenable Stade Olympique roof weren’t enough to remind CF Montréal of the visitors’ danger, this chance was a real warning sign for the home team, who knew that as much as they needed to score, they had to be very careful about putting themselves at risk of letting in any away goals.

In the last 5 minutes of the first half, some chances started to come for Montreal, who up to then, would have been quite happy with the way the game was playing out. Camacho made good contact with his head from a corner, but only found the chest of ‘keeper Sebastián Jurado. A few minutes later Quioto got his first good look at goal, on a play which was eventually ruled offside. The supporters of the Montreal side had reason for optimism.

Antuna had other ideas, however, and he couldn’t have timed it better. Ángel Romero played a fantastic cross to the back post, and found an open Antuna at the back post, who made his talent show. The Mexican international struck the ball with perfect precision to put the full volley past a hopeless Breza. It was also a gut-punch which came just as CF Montréal was starting to build some attacking confidence, and right before half time.

    Antuna played most of the first half on the right side, but on this occasion took advantage of what was probably the weaker side in Montreal’s back line. Kamal Miller had a big game performance at left centre back, as he was dominant both in the air and on the ground. On the other side of back line commander Rudy Camacho, however, the defence didn’t look quite as strong. While it’s difficult to single out Alistair Johnston for those troubles, as he had the less defensively minded Lassi Lappalainen to help him out on the right side of the back line, he did get drifted slightly out of position on this play, giving Antuna the space he needed to find the net.

While they say that just before half-time is the worst time to concede a goal, it did give Wilfried Nancy some time with his players to come to terms with their new reality. With Cruz Azul’s goal, Montreal went from needing one goal to make the series even, to needing three to stay alive. Away goals being the tiebreaker, Montreal needed to win by at least two goals, and that meant that they had a monstrous task ahead of them.

As Nancy said postgame, his side had a plan for if they needed to go “all in”. That plan took effect at half time, with veteran striker Kei Kamara replacing defender Róbert Thorkelsson, who is almost half his age. The move also took Ismael Kone out of his midfield pairing with Victor Wanyama, which showed promising signs together once again.

Kamara provided some of the inspiration Montreal needed, who looked lively coming out of the interval. The 6 foot 3 striker first came close in the 51st minute, but his slide at the back post was just short of Lappaleinen’s cross. He then got his head onto a couple of crosses, but couldn’t trouble Cruz Azul’s goalkeeper.

If it wasn’t already evident that CF Montréal was knocking on the door, the pressure the Mexican side was under was clear by the way their whole team collapsed around their own penalty box for most of the half. In fact, Cruz Azul didn’t have a single chance at goal in the whole second half, as it was very much one way traffic.

Montreal managed to carve out a few more chances with just over 10 minutes plus stoppage time to go. Johnston found some space down the right side, and his cross was blocked, leading to two successive corner kicks. It was on the second that Joaquín Torres whipped a cross into the box, which Camacho got to first, getting Montreal the first goal they had been trying so hard to find.

It took a long time, but at last the Stade Olympique had come to life. This was CF Montréal’s first home game without the 50% capacity limit, and the lower bowl was more than half full. There were still more than 10 minutes left at this point, and the supporters of the home side among the 21 388 present had belief.

A few late pushes followed, but nothing else was to come for Montreal as Cruz Azul ultimately held on to the advantage they had given themselves. Nancy’s men had to settle for a 1-1 draw on the night, and a 2-1 loss on aggregate, eliminating them from the competition at the same stage asin 2020. Wilfried Nancy judged post-game that the required performance was delivered from his side, but that only the required goals were missing, a common theme this year.

       “The guys had the game they needed,” Nancy said in French afterwards. “This hurts us because they scored right before half time, and in the second half, we did everything but score. In terms of performances we should have more than 1 win so far.”

So now, thanks to this result, that qualifies Cruz Azul for the semi-finals of the competition, where they’ll meet Pumas UNAM, who managed to erase their 3 goal first leg deficit against New England in their quarter-final.

As for CF Montréal, they no longer have the hope of the CONCACAF Champions League to spare them from their MLS blushes. They’ll now have to look forward to a Saturday visit to Atlanta, where they’ll hope to get their MLS season back on track.

Asked about the potential benefit of having a single competition to focus on, Breza admitted that playing games every three days had a toll on the players, and that “it will feel good to be able to focus fully on one competition”. His side has now only won one game from their first 7, although Nancy said that if measured by performances, his team has done better than that. Whether a lightened schedule is all CF Montréal is missing to reach the potential Nancy is reminding us of, only time will tell.

Cover Photo via: Cruz Azul

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