Semi sweet

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Few South American clubs can compare to the success of River Plate. The Argentine powerhouse has established itself as an organization of the highest stature.

But even though River constantly produces players of the highest order, it hasn't won a single major international trophy in more than 10 years. And to top it off, River watched as its archrival, Boca Juniors, made off with their sixth Copa Libertadores trophy this past summer.

The drought is about to end. River has a great opportunity to finally put its misery behind it. Los Millonarios reached the semifinals of the Copa Sudamericana last week, and are in a very good position to advance to the championship decider of South America's second-biggest club tournament.

The club standing in River's way is Arsenal, whom it meets in Sarandí, Argentina, on Thursday night. Arsenal may be the least-supported club in the Argentine first division, but is a team that has proven it has what it takes to defeat the very best teams in the competition.

Arsenal demonstrated its strength after eliminating both Chivas de Guadalajara and Argentine Clausura champion San Lorenzo on its way to the semis. Particularly eye-catching was that it beat both these teams on the road after being held at home in both first-leg matches. Unfortunately, Arsenal's luck is likely to run out against a River Plate side that has finally found its identity this season.

River struggled under the direction of Daniel Passarella earlier in the year, but after a number of major setbacks, it was finally able to demonstrate its fighting spirit in the Sudamericana.

Los Millonarios scraped into the semis of the competition after a hard-earned scoreless draw against Defensor Sporting at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. River only overcame the difficult Uruguayans on the away-goals rule, but that was after fighting for a vital 2-2 draw in Montevideo.

Before that, an amazing late rally saw River edge Brazil's Botafogo 4-3 on aggregate in the last 16. River scored three times in the final 16 minutes of the second leg, including Radamel Falcao García's injury-time winner that sent them through. But even though River seems to have found its form at this decisive stage of the season, it must be aware of the competition it faces en route to the title.

The other interesting semifinal matchup, which kicks off Wednesday night, is between former Colombian great Millonarios and Mexican power Club América.

Millonarios, whose only international title was the 2001 Copa Merconorte, have experienced an outstanding campaign, and are likely to be an extremely difficult opponent for the Mexicans. They reached this stage of the competition after eliminating two South American giants, the always dangerous Colo-Colo and São Paulo.

Its 3-0 aggregate victory over São Paulo was particularly impressive. In the first leg at the Morumbí, the Colombians absorbed heavy pressure from the Brazilians, and after lots of patience, picked up a vital 1-0 victory with a late, but incredibly easy winner from Luis Zapata. Then, in the second leg in Bogotá, Millonarios cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory over the Brazilians with two goals from experienced midfielder Ricardo Ciciliano.

The Colombians have already been eliminated from their domestic competition, and will look at the Sudamericana as their main means to finally return to the continental map after many years in obscurity. Their victory over São Paulo means great expectations awaiting the first-leg clash with América on Wednesday, and all 48,000 tickets put on sale at the Campín de Bogotá have already been sold out.

"I think both teams know how important these two matches will be, "Millonarios striker Jonathan Estrada declared to the press. "We will arrive with the same mentality that we have always had, and even more so by knowing that we are just a step away from the final."

But will Millonarios have the necessary fire power to defeat América? On paper, it seems unlikely. Despite the fact that América is currently in eighth position in the overall Mexican Apertura championship standings, it boasts one of its most exciting squads in years.

América's depth is absolutely amazing this season, particularly because of its talented South American contingent. Former Boca Juniors playmaker FedericoInsúa has the right temperament to lead the side in creativity, while HernánRodrigo López and Salvador Cabañas are deadly when in front of goal (all three players scored in the 4-1 rout of last year's champion, Pachuca, in the round of 16).

Las Águilas haven't experienced much success in South American club competitions in the past, but have a good shot at the title this season. If they're able to return home with a positive result from Colombia, they should be able to close in on a final appearance when the sides meet for the second leg at Toluca's Nemesio Diez stadium on Nov. 13 (América's home stadium, the Azteca, is booked for a religious event).

That being said, which two teams will advance to the grand final, and who will end up winning it? Expect a highly contested series between Millonarios and América, two teams that have proven they fully deserve to be at this stage of the competition.

The Colombians probably come into the series as the favorites after easing past what seemed to be a very difficult São Paulo side. Argentine manager MarioVanemerak has worked wonders with the team since replacing Martín Lasarte midway through the season, and his squad promises to deliver the goods.

But, despite only scraping into the semifinals after holding on for a lucky 1-0 defeat against Vasco da Gama in Rio de Janeiro last month (going through 2-1 on aggregate), América's overall depth means it should be a tricky opponent.

Expect the Mexicans to advance to the final after an extremely exciting series that will be decided in the final moments of the second leg. América is likely to meet River in what will be one of the most attractive deciders in recent years. The fact that River last won a major international title back in '96 means it will do everything possible to get past Arsenal to return to a continental final.

And even though América has assembled a very determined side this season, it will be beaten to the title by River Plate. The Argentines are hungry for a title that has eluded them, and the quality of their squad suggests no one will be able to stop them this year.