CONCACAF Champions League: Semifinal Preview
OTF’s CONCACAF editor Austin Fido looks at the CCL 2013-14 semifinal matchups…
The regional showpiece tournament has boiled down to a few familiar faces and Tijuana.
Cruz Azul is the most successful club in the history of CONCACAF whatever-it’s-being-called-these-days. La Maquina has won the regional competition five times, and twice been runner-up.
Toluca has been to four regional finals and won two of them. Alajuelense has been to five finals, and also won two of them.
Only Xolos are untried and untested at this level. This in itself could be a good omen: the last first-time winner of this tournament was Monterrey in 2011, and Los Rayados won the next two competitions for good measure.
The seedings and form book tell us we can look forward to a Cruz Azul – Toluca final. But make your own mind up with a quick breeze through this year’s CCL semifinal pairings…
(5) ALAJUELENSE vs. (1) TOLUCA
1st Leg – 4/1 @ Alajuelense (7pm CST); 2nd Leg – 4/8 @ Toluca (7pm CST)
Toluca is the number one seed in the tournament, the top-scoring team in CCL this year (17 goals from six games), and the only club still able to say it hasn’t lost a single match in this year’s competition.
Oh — Los Diablos Rojos also haven’t lost on their home ground since September. They have the top scorer in CCL 2013-14 – Raul Nava: 7 goals, so far – and have yet to even bother to let Pablo Velazquez (who just scored his 20th goal in Liga MX in his 32nd appearance in the league) start a match in this tournament.
Certainly, Toluca is the favorite for this semifinal. But that’s how Alajuelense likes it. Don’t forget, the Costa Rican champs (winners of their country’s last two domestic league titles) were not favorites to get out of their group: they were drawn alongside Club America, who were dominating Liga MX at the time CCL 2013-14 kicked off.
Los Manudos have faced down allegedly superior Mexican opposition once already in this tournament – they will be happy to do so again. And lest you still doubt their pedigree in this competition, remember the Costa Rican representatives are the only semifinalists in CCL 2013-14 already certain they’ll be playing this tournament again next year.
What They’ve Done Recently:
La Liga has squeezed in three league games since the 2-0 win in Panama which secured this semifinal berth. As such, the squad has been rotated vigorously and delivered two wins and a draw – including an impressive 5-2 humbling of league-leading Herediano.
It all adds up to a four-game unbeaten streak dating back to the CCL quarterfinal 2nd leg victory over Arabe Unido. Indeed, the club has lost just one match in the last two months, and that was on the road against Limon, a mere two days after the CCL 1st leg, contested by a near-reserve team.
This is a team in form. Possibly a little tired – this semifinal 1st leg will be their fourth fixture in less than two weeks – but in form.
One To Watch: Porfirio Lopez
Before Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Santos de Guapiles, Alajuelense had gone five games in the league without a clean sheet. Nonetheless, in CCL, this is the best defense in the tournament.
Los Manudos have conceded one goal in six CCL matches – and that was in the first half of their opening game. Since then, despite two bouts with America and a tussle with Arabe Unido, who tallied seven goals in four games during the group stage, the Alajuelense defense has not been breached. At least, not in a manner that left any traces.
To get past Toluca – the highest scoring team in this year’s CCL – La Liga‘s back four will surely have to extend their streak of holding opponents scoreless. The streak (503 minutes), incidentally, is just 22 minutes away from beating Pachuca’s CCL record for minutes played without conceding a goal.
Alajuelense has scored just six goals in this competition to date. Los Diablos Rojos have 17. The Costa Ricans seem unlikely to be able to keep up if the goals start going in for their rivals.
Porfirio Lopez has been ever-present at the back for Alajuelense this year (he has made more appearances in CCL this season than he managed in MLS for Philadelphia Union during his brief stay with the team in 2012). Los Manudos need him to summon the memory of the triumphant stifling of America in the group stage if they are to get past Toluca in this tie.
What They’ve Done Recently:
Toluca has not been on the most convincing run since squeaking by San Jose’s Earthquakes on penalties in the quarterfinals. Losing 2-1 on the road to Atlante is no disgrace – the Cancun club is gunning for a playoff place this season, despite a recent blip in form. But Los Diablos Rojos followed that performance with a 2-1 win at home over Tigres which was only secured by a stoppage-time goal from Raul Nava.
The team is getting the results it needs, but only just. Still, this is the second-placed team in Liga MX: it could simply be sticking a little too literally to the general assumption it is cruising into the playoffs.
More pertinently, perhaps, Toluca has donated three players to Miguel Herrera’s El Tri squad for the friendly against USMNT on April 2nd. Isaac Brizuela, Miguel Ponce and Alfredo Talavera will all miss the first leg against Alajuelense as a result.
Ponce’s absence may not be noticed – he has barely featured (two substitute appearances) for Toluca in CCL thus far. Brizuela scored the goal that rescued his team from ignominious defeat in the quarterfinals, but his start in the second leg against the Quakes was his first of the tournament. It’s not certain he would have started in Costa Rica.
Talavera, however, will be a noticeable absence. He has started every CCL match Toluca has played in this tournament. For a team that has distinguished itself by leaving most of its stars on the bench for CCL, the consistent reliance on the first-choice ‘keeper is significant.
One To Watch: Cesar Lozano
Talavera’s most likely replacement in goal for the first leg (though Miguel Centeno perhaps has a shot also) watches the vast majority of Toluca’s games from the bench. But he is experienced – 36 years old – and this is his job: to fill in effectively on the rare occasions Talavera is unavailable.
Still, Alajuelense successfully exploited a stand-in ‘keeper in their last CCL outing. We can expect Lozano to be a cut above the unfortunate Arabe Unido second-choice glove man, but if Toluca has any apparent weakness heading into the first leg of this semifinal, it is the guy who gets tapped to cover for Talavera.
(3) TIJUANA vs. (2) CRUZ AZUL
1st Leg – 4/1 @ Tijuana (9pm CST); 2nd Leg – 4/8 @ Cruz Azul (7pm CST)
Xolos bounded into Liga MX in 2011.
August 20th, 2011: Cruz Azul 2 – 1 Tijuana.
February 12th, 2012: Tijuana 0 – 0 Cruz Azul.
October 19th, 2012: Tijuana 2 – 2 Cruz Azul.
April 13th, 2013: Cruz Azul 5 – 0 Tijuana.
September 20th, 2013: Tijuana 0 – 0 Cruz Azul.
March 15th, 2014: Cruz Azul 2 – 1 Tijuana.
You see the problem here? Right now, Cruz Azul is top of the Liga MX table. Tijuana is 9th. La Maquina appear assured of a place in the playoffs, but four points separate 6th place from 16th.
Xolos are in a dogfight to make the post-season, and in CCL they are up against team they have never managed to beat in Liga MX – even when they were really good (the latter part of 2012).
What They’ve Done Recently:
Having won their quarterfinal by an aggregate score of 4-3, Xolos warmed up for the semis by beating Puebla 3-1 at home and losing 2-1 in Queretaro. So another 4-3 aggregate win over those two matches.
Of course, to beat Cruz Azul in CCL, Tijuana will need to…um…beat Cruz Azul – an achievement which has proved beyond this team in its short Liga MX history. Xolos will undoubtedly beat La Maquina at some point, and CCL is as good a place as any to break the hex.
One To Watch: Dario Benedetto
Yes, Tijuana has many exciting American players on its roster, and we’ll probably see at least three of them during these semifinals (either Edgar Castillo or Greg Garza at left back; Joe Corona and Herculez Gomez doing atttack-minded things). But they don’t look like key players for Xolos in the forthcoming CCL fixtures.
Benedetto has scored four goals in Tijuana’s last five games – only missing out, in common with his teammates, when faced with Jaime Penedo’s uncommon resistance during the CCL quarterfinal 1st leg against LA Galaxy.
He is the hot hand in Xolos‘ squad at the moment. The CCL semifinal 1st leg is Tijuana’s second game of a five-matches-in-15-days stretch that will define the club’s season. Two league games (against Toluca and Tigres) will determine whether Xolos are still in the hunt for a playoff spot heading into the last couple of rounds of Liga MX; and this pair of games with Cruz Azul will decide Tijuana’s fate in the regional competition.
Benedetto could play in every game. Arguably, given his form, he should play in every game. But he may need to rest, and any matches he misses will be interpreted as a commentary on Xolos‘ priorities.
So keep an eye out for Benedetto in Tijuana’s lineup: if he’s there, he could be fun to watch; if he’s not, it could be taken as suggestion Xolos have stopped caring about this CCL matchup.
What They’ve Done Recently:
Whisper it, because this is still a very good team: La Maquina has been wobbling lately. Since dismantling Sporting Kansas City (almost literally – KC keeps jettisoning players who featured in the 5-1 thrashing at Estadio Azul) in the quarterfinals, Cruz Azul has played twice Liga MX, and won neither game.
Traveling to play Leon and coming away with a point from the team which is still, technically, the reigning Liga MX champion, isn’t bad. But at half-time of its last home game, La Maquina was down 3-1 to Atlas.
Things got so bad in that match, Achille Emana was subbed in for his first league appearance of the season.
It is conceivable, therefore, for Cruz Azul to look upon the absence of Rogelio Chavez and Marco Fabian for national team duty as a blessing. They won’t play in the first leg against Tijuana, and there is a ready-made excuse for coach Luis Tena to tinker with his lineup, maybe turn to a few fresh faces, and if all goes wrong, he can blame El Tri instead of his own players.
La Maquina is in no real danger of missing out on the Liga MX playoffs, but a trophy is surely the only satisfactory reward for what has been, until recently, a startlingly good Clausura.
Yes, Cruz Azul will want to win both Liga MX and CCL over the next couple of months, but first the team must settle back into the kind of form it was in earlier this year. There is cause for optimism: La Maquina has beaten just two teams in its last six games – Sporting KC and Tijuana.
One To Watch: Mariano Pavone
Part of Cruz Azul’s recent problems in Liga MX has been that no one other than Marco Fabian has managed to score in their last four league games. This clearly needs to change.
Absent Fabian for the first leg, there is no choice but to prevail upon the other forwards in the squad to up their game. There is plenty of firepower in this team. Personally, I’d love to believe Tena will finally set aside whatever grievance he has with Achille Emana and let the Cameroonian have a crack at Xolos in Tijuana.
But he may not be quite so desperate yet. More likely, Tena looks to Pavone to rekindle the form that brought him 20 league goals during his first year with Cruz Azul, and a hat-trick against Sporting Kansas City in the CCL quarterfinals.
CONCACAF editor Austin Fido can be found on Twitter @canetop where he often raves about CCL. Follow him.