Cruz Azul .... (1)1 ..... CF Montreal ..... (0)0
Somehow, CF Montreal managed to emerge from Estadio Azteca on Wednesday night with only a 0-1 deficit.
Throughout a painful first-half you wondered how they would get through the 90 mins and still keep next week’s second-leg interesting. Visions of only 8 or 10 thousand rattling around the massive Stade Olympique concrete bowl when Mexico’s Blues return the visit presented uninspiring, yet realistic, thoughts.
But they did (keep it interesting)... they managed to get out of one of world football’s iconic venues without fabled Cruz Azul adding to the lead given them by Uriel Antuna in the 20th minute.
While important to understand Montreal being understrength and playing at altitude, would they really have performed that much better had Quioto, Choiniere and Piette been available?
Perhaps, but on the night, the slender margin had more to do with Mexican profligacy in front of goal, the home side’s diminishing desire after the 60 minute mark, and probably Nancy’s substitutions with the game two-thirds complete.
The first hour of the game wasn’t good viewing for Quebec eyes. Yet they might have gone in at the interval undeservedly level, if not for some rash decision-making from Bassong which led to his man, Antuna, angling in to claim the game’s only goal.
We’ve seen this before from the left-sided defender who really must develop better awareness of his station and improve both concentration levels and decision-making. His error in leaving his man and coming for a ball that wasn’t his, ultimately cost Montreal the game.
At last, there was a first, encouraging glimpse of Robert Thorkelson and perhaps he will get the nod for tomorrow’s visit to NYCFC. If so and if retained, the Icelander may prove a tougher nut to crack for Uriel Antuna next week when the Mexicans roll into town.
Staying with defence, its ability to play football out from the back remains concerning particularly as this appears to be the way Nancy wants his team to construct the play. There was improvement during the latter third of the contest, but when pressed by the opposition earlier in the game there wasn’t much to inspire confidence.
Some ‘heart in the mouth’ moments were evident and with a concept that requires a goalkeeper confident with feet, observers should wonder at Breza’s selection over Pantemis. The younger man provides greater presence between the sticks, but Pantemis’ wins the footwork comparison hands down.
Although Waterman’s game improved after moving into the centre of a defensive three, only really captain Victor Wanyama foraging away in midfield, emerged from Wednesday evening’s test with flying colours. His strength and experience shone through, but the supporting cast must aspire quickly to similar levels if progress is to be realized.
The psychology of football dictates the return leg will be a different story of course.
Romell Quioto returns from suspension, a welcome boost, and Montreal can expect the Mexicans to sit back, play more conservatively and hope to hit on the break. Cruz Azul will fancy themselves to score however, which means Montreal will need at least three to win.
It was a similar story in the previous round when Montreal was successful, winning 3-0, but Cruz Azul is a class above a Santos side that struggles even to gain a foothold in the current LigaMX Clausura.
The Montreal squad remains light, particularly up front, after a relatively inactive winter of transfer business. Only really Alistair Johnston and Kei Kamara (38) have been added to last year’s panel.
Renard and Nancy clearly have enough faith in the emergence of young players like Kone and Zouhir, but each man needs results to rebound for the better, sooner rather than later. With away visits to the MLS Cup champions and Atlanta United either side of the 2nd leg with Cruz Azul, it’s not getting any easier. A worst case scenario would be Champions League elimination and zero points from 4 league rounds.
Best case? Three wins in the next three games, with Cruz Azul beaten by a two goal margin.
The actual is likely to be somewhere in the middle. Looking unconvincing and uncertain so far, Montreal must at least conjure two points from the next two rounds in MLS and produce a Concacaf performance to remember.
At least we know midweek nights under the Big O lights can bring out the best in teams from this city. Magic really can happen... it has before!
But as the disastrous 2014 season may also remind us... falling too far behind early in the league campaign eventually makes the season feel long and tired with victories difficult to come by.
Losing, like winning is a habit...
Montreal needs some points on the board quickly.