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May 7, 2014

No fear in Liguilla semifinalists

LOS ANGELES -- In its own style, as the popular expression goes "everyone to their own", the semifinals of the 2014 title race will be played by teams that protect and respect the game of soccer: Toluca, Leon, Santos and Pachuca. Clubs currently sitting in second, fourth, sixth and eighth place in the league table.

- Hernandez: Five things to watch for in Liguilla semis

Three foreign coaches (Leon's Gustavo Matosas, Toluca's Jose Cardozo, Santos' Pedro Caixinha) and one Mexican (Enrique Meza), are gunning for the final by having destroyed teams that proved cowardly when it came to their basic competitiveness.

Pumas has no place here, what they have is muscle power, yet this is not reflected on the leader board. Leon knocked Cruz Azul out of the title race, after Cruz Azul became nervous after taking the lead 2-0. In the meantime Santos annihilated an already weakened America squad.

At the same time, Toluca suffered at the beginning while attempting to break down the Xolos defense, while Pumas ran out of steam during the last six games of the season. Of 18 points up for grabs, they have won only six, against relegated Chiapas and Chivas, and succumbing to relentless Pachuca striker Enner Valencia.

Does anyone miss the alleged big four? No one.

Chivas continue otherwise distracted by the scandal involving former head coach Ricardo La Volpe's dismissal, while America has no choice but to continue with head coach Antonio Mohamed, who wants to bench six and bring in eight more players as reinforcements. In the meantime, Cruz Azul continues to lick their wounds and Pumas, well, they continue to be Pumas.

The semifinals look to be promising. Leon have rediscovered themselves and will face a complete and aggressive Toluca squad.

Meanwhile, the tremendous Caixinha, who celebrated in true Jose Mourinho-style, commands the squad that must face a Pachuca, a fractured squad yet not lacking in devotion.

So the table has been set. The fight is between teams, yet individually it's a competition of strength.

Matosas knows that his central three, the same three that form the foundations of El Tri, will be a threat to Antonio Rios and Wilson Tiago, if fully fit. Nevertheless, Leon should worry about Edgar Benitez and Raul Nava, with a defense that weakens if Carlos Pena and Jose Juan Vazquez go too long.

But surely, as they have shown in the past, neither team will back down.

The one who should be shaking in his boots is Caixinha. Valencia and their teammates will be decked out in bullfighter costumes or more appropriately, with regard to the wing and midfield players in "Forcado" costumes. Speed and ability against a slow, inattentive, clumsy defense lacking in resources, yet by no means are they the worst in the tournament, taking into account the regular season and the playoffs.

But just as we can gloat about the attacking abilities of Valencia, on the other hand we must pay attention to an equally sassy player, the most powerful of this tournament, Carlos Darwin Quintero. Since last season this is a player, who Caixinha, much to everyone's dismay, has given carte blanche on the pitch. And let us not forget the striking force of Oribe Peralta and Andres Renteria.

This season seems to be full of pure goal-scorers, loose and all licensed to pounce, working full-time.

And what of the league we call mediocre? It is still there, as such. In the end, the league did not generate a mutant, but a better and improved version of the playoffs.

Fortunately, those who were in other territories wanting to amaze returned just in the nick of time: Leon got through on a lucky ticket, yet nevertheless legitimately; while Santos bullied a team, which for the last two years running was considered the best team. It is important to reiterate that this is a team that has gone from being a lion to a pussycat.

More importantly, these are four teams that respect the game, be it in their own way and under their own rules. Yet all the same there are no tricks, gimmicks, gadgets, fears or curses.

In fact, up to now, it seems that it may have been worth tolerating 17 weeks of miserable and mediocre football in order to witness the goals scored during the playoffs, the talented players and in some cases the intelligence demonstrated by the teams (Toluca and Leon), the guts (Santos) and of course luck (Pachuca).

The semifinalists seem to have taken heed of the ever so simplistic and efficient words of the Chinese general Sun Tzu in The Art of War: "Bring them (the enemies) to a place from which they cannot escape, and they shall die before they can escape."