Champions League Preview: 2011-12 Semifinals, First Leg (Plus: More CCL Qualifying)
Posted on March 28, 2012 6:53 pm
This evening, the CONCACAF Champions League reaches the business end. For the four remaining competitors, only a quartet of matches remain between them and a prestigious appearance among the champions of Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America at the next Club World Cup in Japan. A couple of teams may have better odds than the others; but just by reaching this point, each has earned the right to dream of international glory.
The last stretch of their continental campaigns begins with the first legs of the semifinals, both of which will be held tonight. Here is the schedule, with the home teams listed first (all times EST).
Wednesday, March 28:
Toronto FC (CAN) vs. Santos Laguna (MEX), 8:00 p.m.
CF Monterrey (MEX) vs. Pumas UNAM (MEX), 10:00 p.m.
Santos and Monterrey are considered strong favorites to reach the Champions League Final, and rightfully so: the norteños boast the strongest attack and the greatest depth of any team in this tournament, and a meeting between them in the championship would further validate northern Mexico’s recent domination of club football in our region. While the defending champions will face the tougher assignment, history points strongly in their favor: Monterrey’s CCL record does not include a single loss against Mexican opposition. On the other side, while Pumas will not feel themselves in any way Monterrey’s inferior, the universitarios have historically been eliminated from continental play as soon as they ran into domestic rivals. Cruz Azul shut the door on their fellow chilangos on both occasions: in early 2009, not a single damn was given by Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti, who watched as his second-stringers fell 2-0 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, while Javier Aguirre’s call-ups for pre-World Cup “concentrations” caused a more serious Pumas side to crash 5-1 on aggregate in the 2009-10 semifinals. Current coach Memo Vasquez will have no such distractions on his plate; but with qualification for the domestic Clausura playoffs looking less and less of a possibility, it might be a few years before Pumas enjoy such an opportunity to break their two-decade drought of continental silverware.
Unless Humberto Suazo, Aldo de Nigris, “Chelito” Delgado and co. record their third-straight blowout victory, this all-Mexican tie should be well alive heading into next week’s return leg in Mexico City. The other series, however, will depend heavily on how things turn out in a matter of hours.
MATCH OF THE ROUND
However this game goes, Toronto FC can take pride in registering the most successful continental campaign in the history of Canadian football. But the time for reflection comes after all is said and done; and even if Torsten Frings and Sebastian Frei are unavailable through injury, and even if no Mexican club has been eliminated by a non-Mexican opponent in the CCL era, Aron Winter’s side will look to shock the region once again against arguably the best team left.
If there are serious questions to be asked their defense (above all: wherefore art thou, Julian de Guzman?), the front and back are as good as can be expected. Milos Kocic has put his blunder against Real Esteli far behind him, with a world-class save against World Cup veteran Robbie Keane the highlight of a remarkable effort in the Home Depot Center to keep the Galaxy from tying up the quarterfinal late on. Meanwhile, Ryan Johnson can’t stop scoring goals in the Champions League; Joao Plata, Luis Silva and Nick Soolsma will consistently bother Santos Laguna’s back line; and Danny Koevermans is overdue for his first competitive goal of 2012.
Furthermore, history points in TFC’s favor: the last time Santos Laguna faced Canadian opposition, they lost 2-0 at Montreal and rode an epic second-half comeback in Torreon to salvage a 5-4 aggregate win in the 2008-09 CCL quarterfinals. Also, as far as I can tell, Mexican clubs have never won in Canada. Then again, given what happened to Seattle in the quarterfinals, TFC are well aware that only a multiple-goal shutout victory (e.g. 2-0 or 3-0) will be cause for relief.
If Santos Laguna think that this game is a throwaway, their roster certainly does not show it: with only Daniel Luduena and Juan Pablo Rodriguez missing, Benjamin Galindo decided to bring the heat for his side’s trip to the Great White North. Frankly, the match-up between Oribe Peralta, Cristian Suarez, Herculez Gomez, Carlos “Darwin” Quintero and Carlos Ochoa on one side, and Toronto FC’s defensive line on the other, heavily favors the Mexicans. Fortunately for the hosts, it is unlikely that all five attackers will see the field at the same time; but Ashtone Morgan, Miguel Aceval, Ty Harden and Richard Eckersley will have to play flawlessly for Toronto to stand a chance.
One other bit of business to square away: Isidro Metapan has already qualified for the next Champions League, but they are only one victory away from clinching El Salvador’s highest berth in the 2012-13 competition. As it currently stands, the most points that second-place FAS will be able to reach in the full-year table is 63 (the tigrillos currently have 54, with three games left in the Clausura regular season), and Metapan find themselves one point off of that maximum on 62. Their next league match is this evening at 9:00 p.m. against Vista Hermosa; and with a win at the Estadio Jorge “Calero” Suarez, the jaguares will guarantee themselves the SLV1 spot, with an eventual group consisting of them, a US or Mexican top seed and a potentially weak third opponent. Reaching the quarterfinals will undoubtedly be difficult; but SLV1′s plight will be considerably easier than that of SLV2, almost certain to fall in a relative Group of Death.
CCL 2012-13 Qualifiers
1. Seattle Sounders [USA2]
2. LA Galaxy [USA1]
3. Real Salt Lake [USA4]
4. Houston Dynamo [USA3]
5. Chorrillo FC [PAN1 or PAN2]
6. Santos Laguna [MEX2 or MEX3]
7. Tigres UANL [MEX1]
8. Olimpia [HON1 or HON2]
9. Isidro Metapán [SLV1]
10. Municipal [GUA1 or GUA2]
11. LD Alajuelense [CRC1 or CRC2]
12. Real Estelí [NCA]