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May 7, 2014

Five things to watch: Liguilla semis

I'll be honest.

I was only one for four when it came to semifinal predictions. There was of course the "curse" that surrounded Cruz Azul, but I thought they would have easily dealt with Leon. I'm sure La Maquina would have much rather gone up against Chivas instead. Pumas had their ups and downs during the season but I had faith that they would remain consistent in the playoffs. Their defense completely fell apart against Pachuca, thus proving me wrong. As for America, I assumed they would have tried to make up for lost time (and lost games at home) from their earlier underwhelming selves.

- Faitelson: No justification of Cruz Azul, America failures - Canales: Liga MX Roundup: Semis set

Thank you Toluca for not making me look like too much of a fool.

The stage is now set for the Liguilla semifinals as well as more of my incorrect predictions. Below are five things to consider about the first leg of the semifinals. Each one could provide more surprises and will also test my credibility as a fortune teller.

1. Enner Valencia

Enner Valencia almost single-handedly brought Pachuca into the semifinals. Credit must also be given to the talented Pachuca squad, but it's hard to look past a player who has scored three of Los Tuzos' five goals versus Pumas. Valencia is having a spectacular first season in the Liga MX and will be hungry to score his first against Santos. The Ecuadorian national team has utilized Valencia recently and a great finish to his season with Pachuca would provide him with some good momentum going into the World Cup.

2. Santos' defense

If I'm talking about Valencia's attacking prowess, I need to also bring up Santos' defensive woes. Santos were lucky to sneak into the semifinals after finishing with a 6-6 aggregate score against Club America. Santos have been infamous for letting in a good deal of shots and goals this season, which could potentially ruin their chances in the postseason. It will be interesting to see how they can hold up against a Pachuca squad that has scored nine goals in their last three games. Santos were the second worst (or best, if you will) in the league when it came to goals allowed in away games. Santos coach Pedro Caixinha will need to organize his defense during their first match in Pachuca. Then again, they could also rely on their back-up plan of scoring plenty to compensate.

3. Oribe Peralta

Oribe Peralta will be looking to get past Pachuca in order to win his third trophy with Los Guerreros. Peralta has remained scoreless so far in the playoffs and one would assume that it is only a short matter of time before he begins to pick his pace up once again. Although Santos have had their difficulties defensively, on the attack they have a wealth of talent that will support Peralta with many opportunities.

4. Alfredo Talavera

Alfredo Talavera has been outstanding for Toluca in goal and, in my opinion, was the best keeper from the quarterfinals. Talavera saved Toluca many times against Los Xolos and might prove to be their most important asset during the playoffs. In the 17 games that Talavera has played for Los Diablos Rojos, he has only let in 13 goals. His superb form also doesn't hurt his chances with the national team.

5. El Tri fringe players

Mexico head coach Miguel Herrera has announced that he will release the list of the 23 players going to Brazil on Friday May 9th. What this means is that this Wednesday and Thursday will be the last chance for fringe players to impress Herrera. Leon's Jose Juan Vazquez has been called up twice since Herrera took charge, but he still has plenty of midfield competition in the national team. Pachuca's Rodolfo Pizarro had a slightly above average game for Mexico earlier this year and will keep his fingers crossed for this Friday. Pizarro doesn't seem to be on Herrera's radar, but might sneak in as a back-up to Paul Aguilar or right-back Miguel Layun.

Isaac Brizuela, Miguel Ponce, and Alfredo Talavera are a few other options from Toluca who are still not guaranteed a spot by Herrera. Brizuela seems likely to go but it wouldn't be too much of a surprise if Herrera were to overlook the last two.

Herrera may have already made up his mind by now, but there is still a chance that the first legs of the semifinals might influence a last-minute decision or two.