Mexican clubs in pole position as CONCACAF Champions League semifinals commence

Richard Ruiz and Dario Benedetto will hope to guide Club Tijuana past Liga MX leaders Cruz Azul and secure a critical home victory in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal tonight (10:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2).

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Mexican clubs reaffirmed their grasp on the CONCACAF Champions League with their performances during the quarterfinal stage. Club Tijuana, Cruz Azul and Toluca all staved off challenges from their MLS counterparts to take their expected places in the semifinals.

One of the trio of remaining Liga MX sides will expect to ascend to the throne vacated by Monterrey. The only remaining interloper – Costa Rican side LD Alajuelense – struggled with Panamanian outfit Árabe Unido on home soil before summoning an impressive away display to secure the remaining berth in the last four.

Alajuelense will hope to continue its improbable run toward the title, but their challenge will likely fall short. The sixth edition of the Champions League will almost certainly yield a sixth Mexican winner. At this stage, it is just a matter of determining which of the three sides will somehow navigate its way through to lift the trophy.

The semifinal draw ensures plenty of intrigue with Club Tijuana and Cruz Azul meeting on one side of the bracket and Toluca and Alajuelense paired on the other. The first leg ties in both series loom large as the Champions League churns onward in its search to crown Monterrey’s successor and identify its entrant into the Club World Cup later this year.

LD Alajuelense – Toluca (8:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2)

The outcome of this first leg at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto hinges on the deportment of the visitors. Toluca approached its quarterfinal with San Jose in rather dismissive fashion and nearly suffered the consequences. San Jose managed to take Toluca all the way to penalty kicks in the two-legged quarterfinal with its mixture of defiance and rugged work in the final third.

Alajuelense simply doesn’t possess the same tools to create a similarly frustrating dynamic. The Costa Ricans will need to sit deep at points and wait for the counter, but they won’t pose the physical threat Cardozo found so infuriating during the previous stage. The home side must string together tidy sequences on the break – Honduran international Jerry Palacios could play an integral role in those efforts – in order to have a chance.

Even if Alajuelense presents a credible threat, Toluca can secure the expected away result with a dose of application and a willingness to stick to the task at hand. Cardozo can help matters by playing more of his available starters (Isaac Brizuela, Miguel Ponce and Alfredo Talavera are away with Mexico) and relying on the likes of Pablo Velázquez to ensure safe passage with a first-leg triumph.

Club Tijuana – Cruz Azul (10:00p.m., FOX Sports 2)

Tijuana’s woeful away form places additional importance on procuring a positive result at Estadio Caliente. The prospect of a victory over the Liga MXlooks a bit more feasible than it might have a few weeks ago. Tigres ended Cruz Azul’s unbeaten run to start the Clausura and sparked an indifferent run from La Máquina in the aftermath. This group isn’t the rampant outfit of the first few months of the season, particularly with Marco Fabián unavailable due to his Mexican national team commitments.

Cruz Azul’s recent stumbles open the door for the Xolos to procure the necessary result. The onus will fall on Jaime Ayoví and Dario Benedetto to present a dynamic and mobile threat in the final third to expose some of the gaps highlighted in Atlas’ 3-1 victory at Estadio Azul over the weekend. Tijuana must play at a high tempo and press earnestly from the outset to unsettle the visitors and shift the calculus in its favor. Anything short of a substantial home win places the Xolos in a difficult spot ahead of the return leg.