Champions League 2011-12: Semifinals, First Leg Review

Posted on March 31, 2012 5:39 am

Let me start with a challenge for the readers: can anyone find out in which venues the home-and-away series between Monterrey and Serbian White Eagles in the 1975 CONCACAF Champions Cup took place? Because unless the rayados of yesteryear overcame the Beli orlovi 2-0 in Toronto, Mexican clubs have never registered a competitive victory on Canadian soil. Against the odds, albeit in line with Santos Laguna’s usual road form in the CONCACAF Champions League, Toronto FC kept the record intact on Wednesday night in front of almost 19,000 at BMO Field – not a sell-out, but a larger crowd than the one that witnessed Real Salt Lake’s semifinal against Saprissa last year. The 1-1 score ended up being peripheral to the main story, a melee after the final whistle preceded by two red cards for Santos and followed by Herculez Gomez implicitly warning his opponents against playing with their lives next week. Extracurriculars aside, their series remains in the air for now; and of the four remaining CCL participants, only one took a decisive step toward the Final.

TEAM OF THE ROUND

CF Monterrey (MEX)

By now, we cannot truly be surprised at Monterrey’s incredible run of form: Aldo de Nigris, Humberto Suazo and co. have amassed a seven-game undefeated streak against fellow Mexican teams in continental play. I repeat: a seven-game undefeated streak against Mexican teams – that level of regional dominance speaks for itself. And worse, the tight one-goal victories over Toluca and Cruz Azul last year have turned into outright goleadas; on this occasion, Pumas (one of the card-carrying grandes of Mexican football) received a thrashing at the Estadio Tecnologico. Hector Morales found himself free in the box on an early free kick, and with a cheeky flick he beat “Pikolin 2″ to open the scoring. A quick look at the scoreboard will alert you to the de Nigris-and-”Chupete” show providing the finishing touches in the second half, but Monterrey’s most impressive accomplishment involved keeping possession and dictating the game from start to finish, with their rivals limited to a pair of scoring opportunities. If they do manage to successfully defend their championship, one can only hope they bottle this current form for the end-of-year return trip to Japan.

Given that Pumas needed not cross a single international border en route to Nuevo Leon, their match remained outside consideration for this week’s second award. Having said that, a cold analysis of Wednesday’s proceedings provides only one candidate for the honors.

COUNTRY OF THE ROUND

Mexico

In their three CCL appearances, Santos Laguna have only won three games on the road, two of those in Trinidad and Tobago. Take the aforementioned overall winless record of Mexican clubs in the Great White North, and their failure to snatch a lead in the first leg of their series with Toronto is par for the course. Benjamin Galindo unleashed as much of his attacking arsenal as reason would allow, with Carlos Ochoa, Cristian Suarez, Carlos Darwin Quintero and Herculez Gomez all starting; but just as in Seattle, Santos Laguna’s potent front line could only produce one solitary goal on the evening. Quintero made things worse by headbutting Ashtone Morgan at the end; keeping in mind that Cruz Azul’s Emmanuel Villa received a three-match suspension in the Mexican league for a similar offense, the Colombian will be fortunate to see another game in the current CCL.

Regardless, any team in the world will tell you that a 1-1 road draw, with away-goals counting, is a more-than-acceptable result to start off a home-and-away series. The Canadians will be obligated to attack in Torreon next week; and if Aron Winter opts to try and outsmart Santos by having TFC adopt a more patient, cautious approach, he will have to depend on Ryan Johnson and co. taking more advantage of the few opportunities they will create than the same stock of forwards that ran Seattle up the flagpole two weeks ago, super cyan jerseys and all. Without even mentioning Santos Laguna’s advantages in quality, depth and home-field advantage, the guerreros will fancy their chances of sealing an all-Mexican CCL Final (and most likely a clásico norteño).

Fortunately for Quintero, the likelihood that Santos will hardly miss him for their return leg spares the “Goal Scientist” the dishonors for this matchday. Rather, Wednesday’s scoreboard points to the team that suffered the more trauma-inducing northern venture.

GOAT OF THE ROUND

Pumas UNAM (MEX)

When Cruz Azul crushed Pumas 5-0 at the Estadio Azul in 2010, then-head coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti could point to the Mexican national-team callups, depriving him of the services of Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez, as the culprit for his side’s capitulation. And as rapturous as FC Dallas’s 1-0 win at the Estadio Olimpico may have felt for MLS fans, or Isidro Metapan’s 2-1 victory over the universitarios for Salvadorans, current manager Memo Vasquez could rest easy knowing that Pumas had plenty of time to right the ship (which they did convincingly in both cases).

Technically, this is still the case here: a 3-0 home victory over Monterrey is a reasonable proposition, and Pumas did come from behind to knock the regios out the last time they played a home-and-away series. But the comprehensive nature of their defeat on Wednesday, and their own limp performance, makes it difficult to imagine a scenario in which Martin Bravo, Juan Carlos Cacho and nine canteranos rout the defending champions. More importantly, their defense will have to keep Suazo, de Nigris, Angel Reyna and Cesar Delgado under lock and key, since a single away goal conceded will force Pumas to chase five. Most likely, Pumas’ next CCL fixture will be their last, this side of the next Confederations Cup.

A couple of side notes: first, in the recap of the first-round CFU Club Champions Cup group in the Cayman Islands, CONCACAF spelled out the Caribbean Football Union’s rationale for seeding Antigua Barracuda in the second round:

This year’s Caribbean club championship was established with the amateur clubs beginning play in three first-round groups and the survivors (three group winners and the best second-place team) advancing to play the four seeded pro teams in an eight-team, two-group second round.

So there you have it: according to the CFU, the Puerto Rico Islanders, Antigua Barracuda, and the T&T Pro League teams are the only professional outfits in the entire Caribbean. Something to remember for anyone wondering why the standard of Caribbean football has recently declined, relative to North and Central America.

Things are looking rosier in Belize, where the reform process reached its zenith with the democratic ousting of Dr. Bertie Chimilio. Ruperto Vicente will assume the reins of the Football Federation of Belize, bringing an end to an era of missing accounts, electoral malfeasance and financial misappropriations (remember their 2008 World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Houston? Good luck finding that revenue). The FFB’s current financial woes, however, make it highly unlikely that they will able fix up FFB Field to CONCACAF standard in time for the eventual Premier League winner to make a long-awaited return to the continental stage.

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