The winner of the 2006 edition of the CONCACAF Champions Cup is sure to come from either Mexico or Costa Rica as Club America take on LD Alajuelense and Toluca host holders Deportivo Saprissa in the first-legs of the premier club competition's semi-final round on 22 and 23 March.
Mexico's clubs will have history on their side as they have won nearly half (21) of the instalments of the 44-year-old CONCACAF club championship. But fittingly, Costa Rica's clubs are second-best in the record books of the Champions Cup earning the laurels on six occasions. And with LD Alajuelense and Saprissa - Costa Rica's two most successful clubs historically speaking - having won the regional title in 2004 and 2005 respectively, they may well have the edge on recent form as the hunt for a spot in next year's FIFA Club World Championship heats up.
The first meeting on 22 March will pit defending champions and Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa against Toluca of Mexico City. Although the Purple Monster, as Saprissa are known, hold the title, Toluca were the last Mexican side to win the competition back in 2003 and will be fancying their chances at home in the first-half of the semi-final series.
Making easy meat of Honduran champions Olimpia in the quarter-finals (4-1 on aggregate), America Gallego's men will be quietly confident - especially considering the heavy lifting Saprissa had to do in their edgy, down-to-the-wire series with American outfit LA Galaxy.
Hernan Medford's men, who have won three Champions Cups since 1993 and finished third at least year's FIFA Club World Championship in Japan, struggled significantly against the MLS outfit from Los Angeles. Failing to score in the first leg on the road, they found themselves 2-0 down at halftime and looking like dropping a rare result at home in the return affair. But Reynaldo Parks' headed winner in extra-time forced the Ticos - who have no less than 7 Costa Rican full internationals in the first team - through on a slim 3-2 aggregate after a gritty comeback.
With no goals yet from Costa Rican international top scorer and FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan 2002 veteran Ronald Gomez, Medford will be desperate to get the big battering ram of a forward among the goals, especially considering he's scored only twice in the Clausura domestic campaign. On the other side of the fence, Gallego will be keen for Argentine countryman Rodrigo Diaz to keep up his torrid scoring run and impressive performances in the centre of midfield. His 50-yard chip over the keeper and under the crossbar in San Pedro Sula against Olimpia is a slight indication of the kind of form he is in for the Red Devils.
Goal-shy La Liga meet torrid America
The other semi-final first leg will take place on Thursday 23 March and pit four-time Champions Cup winners Club America of Mexico City against twice champions Liga Deportiva Alajuelense of Costa Rica.
Despite winning the 2004 edition of the Champions Cup, Alajuelense (or simply La Liga to their fans) will be desperate for increased attacking output when they host Club America. Unable to score in their first leg quarter-final game against New England Revolution on a fast-moving pitch in Hamilton, Bermuda, it took them no less than 90 minutes of the return leg to get their first goal of the 2006 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Granted it was a stunning free kick from Carlos Hernandez and enough to see them through on a monumentally nerve-jangling 1-0 aggregate scoreline, but it will not have confidence soaring when it comes to getting goals as they host the first semi-final leg in Alajuela.
Mexico City giants Club America, on the other hand, made mincemeat of Jamaica's Portmore United over their two quarter-final legs, scoring seemingly at will. The first leg in Texas saw what was effectively a reserve squad earn a result thanks to the heroics and leadership of talismanic Aaron Padilla. And it was more of the same in the return leg as he grabbed a hat-trick to help bring the overall aggregate to a bloated 7-3.
Though they are the most successful of the remaining teams in terms of Champions Cup titles, America - who have been suffering through some indifferent domestic form and recently changed coaches, bringing in Manuel Lapuente - have not won on the continental stage since their last victory back in 1992.
The demanding fans back home at the Azteca will not be content with merely a decent showing and, considering their domestic form of late, the Champions Cup may well represent the only hope for silverware in 2006.