CONCACAF cream shrinks to four
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The 2011 CONCACAF Champions League is down to just four teams, with the semi-final series kicking off this week. Real Salt Lake are the only remaining side from USA and will take on Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa, while Mexico’s two remaining participants Cruz Azul and Monterrey square off.

Real Salt Lake emerged victorious from a tense quarter-final tangle with fellow Major League Soccer outfit Columbus Crew. The first leg of the affair ended 0-0 on a frozen pitch at the Crew’s home base in Ohio, but surprise 2009 MLS champions Real Salt Lake threw caution to the wind in their return fixture last week at Rio Tinto Stadium. Javier Morales was the man of the hour, scoring two goals and setting up another in an emphatic 4-1 win for a side who – along with the rest of MLS – begin their 2001 regular season this week.

The win sees RSL become the first MLS side to reach the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League since it changed formats in 2008. They will now meet up with Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa in the semi-final, with the first leg at home on Tuesday.

“It's important for us to remember that this is a two-leg affair, no matter what. We can't win the whole thing in one game," said coach Jason Kreis, formerly a star striker for the club. “We have to be well-prepared, understand the task at hand, understand our opponent and make sure our energy levels are right from the first very minute,” added midfielder Will Johnson of the test to come. A full house is expected at Real’s home stadium to greet the arrival of Saprissa, who will have a significant advantage in the second leg at their hugely intimidating Saprissa Stadium in San Jose.

“It's important for us to remember that this is a two-leg affair, no matter what. We can't win the whole thing in one game," said coach Jason Kreis, formerly a star striker for the club. “We have to be well-prepared, understand the task at hand, understand our opponent and make sure our energy levels are right from the first very minute,” added midfielder Will Johnson of the test to come. A full house is expected at Real’s home stadium to greet the arrival of Saprissa, who will have a significant advantage in the second leg at their hugely intimidating Saprissa Stadium in San Jose.

Saprissa, led by the quarter-final scorers Armando Alonso and Luis Diego Cordero, arrive on the back of their own winning campaign, having dispatched Olimpia of Honduras. Their hard-fought 2-1 win in the second leg on the road in San Pedro Sula sealed a 3-1 aggregate triumph for the Costa Rican powerhouse. It was also a fifth straight victory for the three-time CONCACAF champions as they aim to return to the final for the first time since 2008.

All-Mexican party
The other side of the bracket sees the two remaining Mexican sides square off. Five-time champions Cruz Azul are back in the semi-finals for the third straight year and will be favourites heading into their showdown with Monterrey, which begins on 16 April. The Mexico City side thrashed Santos 5-1 on aggregate in their quarter-final series and will be hoping to do the same to awaiting opponents Monterrey in the semi-finals.

“It’s a positive thing to be playing in the Champions League,” said Cruz Azul’s hard-man and Mexican international Gerardo Torrado, banishing concerns that the team are losing focus with domestic and continental play going on. “Playing in two competitive situations helps to give us focus to fight for titles.”

The Rayados, for their part, reached the semi-final round by following a much trickier path. A 1-0 win on the road against Toluca in the first leg was followed up by an identical result back home, the lone goal of the contest coming from Neri Cardozo in the dying moments of the contest and finally allowing Monterrey’s fans to breathe a big sigh of relief.

The CONCACAF Champions League has been won by a Mexican side on 27 occasions (21 better than second-place Costa Rica), including the last five instalments. The winner of the final series – to be played over two legs in late April - will represent the region at the next FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.