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Cement Mixers face titleholders in Libertadores final

© Reuters Limited 2001

MEXICO CITY, June 19 (Reuters) - A Mexican team founded by and named after a cement factory take on defending champions Boca Juniors, Argentina's most popular club which boasts Diego Maradona among its fans, in the first leg of the Libertadores Cup final on Wednesday. Cruz Azul are the first Mexican team to reach the final of the South American club cup in its 31-year history and aim to dethrone the champions after a romantic run which has captured their country's imagination.

The Mexicans have swept aside traditional Libertadores teams such as Paraguay's Cerro Porteno and Argentina's River Plate with exuberant, attacking football which has helped make this year's Libertadores one of the most entertaining in years. The strike force of Juan Francisco Palencia and Paraguay's Jose Cardozo, which has produced nine goals, and the intelligent midfield play of Brazilian Julio Cesar Pinheiro and Argentine Angel Morales have more than made up for a shaky defence. Cruz Azul have been so popular that they have switched their home games to the 115,000 capacity Azteca stadium, virtually filling the giant arena for their quarter-final and semifinal ties. Another packed house is expected on Wednesday. Though few people begrudge Cruz Azul their place, their presence in the final has caused a certain amount of confusion.

The South American Football Confederation (CSF) has ruled that Cruz Azul will not travel to Tokyo for the annual match between the European and South American champions even if they win, ensuring Boca will take on Bayern Munich near the end of the year. Mexican teams have taken part by invitation since 1998 but some critics complain about the Mexican federation's selection process, which prevents provincial teams such as Pachuca and Morelia from qualifying even when they win the Mexican title. Cruz Azul will be at full strength after the Mexican national team, which is away to Honduras the same night in a World Cup qualifier, agreed to release goalkeeper Oscar Perez, defender Sergio Almageur and striker Palencia. Coach Jose Luis Trejo, whose team has given Mexican football some consolation for the national team's dismal spell, was grateful to his counterpart Enrique Meza. "That demonstrates that the coach of the national team wants to support Mexican football via the clubs," he said.

Cruz Azul, who have been helped by Mexico City's high altitude, have won all six home games so far but Boca, who knocked out Brazilian clubs Vasco da Gama and Palmeiras in the previous rounds, have a good away record this year. "We got to the final playing well away from home and this is a paradox because normally it's the other way round," said coach Carlos Bianchi, whose team are staying in the resort of Cancun and will travel to Mexico City hours before kick-off. "Cruz Azul are the team who have played the best football in this tournament," added Biachi, who won the title with Velez Sarsfield in 1994 as was well as leading Boca last year. Boca left-back Anibal Matellan is suspended after being sent off against Palmeiras last week and will be replaced by Clemente Rodriguez. Striker Guillermo Barros Schelotto will be absent through injury and Bianchi is likely to play with just one man in attack, bringing Walter Gaitan into the midfield instead.

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