Pedro Caixinha well-prepared to build on Paco Jemez's work at Cruz Azul
To interpret Cruz Azul's state of mind is never simple.
On the one hand, the club always tries to start with an optimistic outlook of things, with the hope that it will once again return to a final and finally win a league after not winning one since 1997. But on the other hand, the ghosts of lost finals and poor seasons remain and the hopes of finally reaching a final and winning it get weaker. However, the arrival of Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha has acted as a self-assurance that the club is finally on a positive path, of which it hopes to build on in the 2018 Clausura.
Under Paco Jemez's watch in 2017, Cruz Azul revitalized its identity by finding a certain stability that not just included the players, directors and coaching staff, but also the club's fan base. With Jemez leading the team, the fans saw their beloved club compete against the league's best, and after six straight seasons without playoff football saw their club go head-to-head with America in last season's Liguilla, where Cruz Azul and America went 180 minutes without scoring a goal; America's position on the regular-season table placed it in the semifinals.
Jemez left Mexico as a manager who was never able to win 100 percent of the Mexico City football press. His popularity rate was never stable; it was always in constant movement. Jemez's peace of mind always stayed inside the club, with his players, who for the most part understood his idea and took to the field all the orders he indicated. In his mind, Jemez left Mexico with the notion that he succeeded in Liga MX because he helped Cruz Azul reach the Liguilla. But in Mexico, a club with Cruz Azul's historical weight can't just feel satisfied by reaching the quarterfinals of the Liguilla.
The arrival of Caixinha serves as a reminder that Jemez's unfinished work was set on pause after his one-year contract expired, and that now the former Rangers and Santos Laguna manager will work on building from what Jemez left behind.
"Paco [Jemez] did a great job in his one-year project. He left us spectacular working bases," Caixinha said upon being hired.
"I arrived and am happy to see these working bases, of which I can work off from. I will add my ideas, my orientations, and structure them so I can include the dynamics that I want, but I like the fact that I already have a base.
"So I believe this -- Paco has done an excellent job. And another thing that he did very well, and that I want to prolong, is the relationship with the fans. We want this connection to continue. The team has to relate with the fans, and the fans, with their support, have to make our players feel it when we play home."
It's been five years since Caixinha first set foot in Mexico. For the 2013 Clausura, he was appointed Santos manager, and at the time he was the only European-born manager in Liga MX. Caixinha went on to stay at Santos until the 2015 Apertura season, where after a rocky start that included three defeats and one victory he decided to step down as the club manager. In the five full seasons he was in charge of Los Guerreros, he led the side from Torreon to four Liguillas, in which the team reached the semis three straight times and went on to win the whole thing in its fourth try.
His history in Liga MX is the total opposite of what he lived with Rangers. Under his command, Rangers won 14 of his 26 games in charge. Plus, at the start of this 2017-18 season, his Rangers were eliminated from the Europa League qualifiers by Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn. However, his 2015 Clausura season with Santos, which was capped off with the club's fifth league championship, provides Caixinha the right to command an important project at Cruz Azul, a club desperate for silverware.
The Portuguese signed a three-year contract, and right away he's had to make important calls. The most notable one has been to let go of Christian "Chaco" Gimenez, who arrived to La Maquina in 2010 and since then had become a club bastion and fan favorite. During all the calamities the club suffered since 2010, Chaco always came out to speak with the press when everything was falling part.
But Caixinha might have noted that it was time for Chaco to understand that at Cruz Azul his playing contributions were no longer required, and that it was imperative for other players inside the club to take on the leadership roles Chaco always possessed. Alongside sporting director Eduardo "Yayo" de la Torre, Caixinha and his coaching staff have planned a strategy that has as a main goal to make Cruz Azul's attack more dangerous and efficient. He wants his attackers to be more aggressive and create more scoring opportunities than last season. Of course, with one condition, and that is that his XI will always need to move in a single block from offense to defense and vice versa.
The acquisitions of young but experienced Mexican forward Carlos Fierro and Argentine attacking midfielder Walter Montoya serve that offensive purpose Caixinha hopes to immediately improve in his first weeks in charge of La Maquina. Also, Cruz Azul went on to get right-back Jose Maduena from Atlas; Maduena has been one of the best Mexican-born full-backs in Liga MX in the past two seasons.
Caixinha's attacking options are plentiful, but it was odd that the team decided not to reinforce its central defense. With this observation in mind, Caixinha will make his Cruz Azul debut on Saturday, as La Maquina hosts Xolos.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.