Cruzeiro net big win over River Plate in Libertadores but fail to impress
The first legs of the quarterfinals in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, all ended in single goal victories. But there is no doubt as to who was the big winner of the week.
There were 1-0 wins for Emelec of Ecuador over Tigres of Mexico, Santa Fe of Colombia over Internacional of Brazil and for Guarani of Paraguay over Racing of Argentina. But Brazilian side Cruzeiro's 1-0 win over River Plate of Argentina has much more value. Cruzeiro were the away side. All the others were home wins -- and with the away goals rule in operation, the winners are in a strong position in next week's return games. If they get one, then the opponents will need to score three.
The task, then, for Tigres, Internacional and Racing is not easy. They must push to impose themselves on the match without leaving themselves over-exposed. Cruzeiro, meanwhile, are sitting pretty. They will take the field in front of their own fans with the scoreline already in their favour and the onus will be on River Plate to come out and do something about it.
There was a striking similarity between the four first legs. All were very tight, slow burners, with chances few and far between -- until space started to open up in the second half. The goals came late -- less so for Emelec, who struck soon after the hour. The other three matches had to wait until the last 10 minutes for the champagne moment; stoppage time in the case of Santa Fe's strike.
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Cruzeiro, then, were not only the lone away winners, or the sole visitors to avoid defeat. They were the only away side to score a goal. Theirs was a superb result, but nothing that happened in the 90 minutes countered the impression that this was a match between two sides who have failed to live up to expectations so far in the competition.
In the case of River Plate, this is self-evident. Winners of the Copa Sudamericana at the end of last year, there were high hopes on the club's return to the Libertadores for the first time since first round elimination in 2009. Little, though, has gone right. River only just managed to get out of the group this time and have consistently come across as a group of individuals who gave gone off the boil together. Star striker Teofilo Gutierrez can do nothing right; playmaker Leonardo Pisculichi, one of the surprise successes of last year, has lost form.
True, River managed to get past an in-form Boca Juniors side in the previous round -- they were 1-0 up on aggregate when the second leg was abandoned. But that was essentially a defensive triumph. Coach Marcelo Gallardo came off his customary midfield diamond, packed the centre of the field and blocked Boca's passing. Against Cruzeiro more attacking spark was called for -- and was sadly absent.
A 0-0 draw would not have been a bad result, but River fell to a late piece of defensive laxness. In recent weeks, promising teenager Emanuel Mammana has deputised impressively for the injured Gabriel Mercado at right-back -- so much that, with Mercado recovered, Mammana kept his place for the Cruzeiro game.
Much of his play was once more eye catching, but those who followed the South American under-20 Championships at the start of the year -- when Mammana anchored the defence -- may recall that he is prone to the occasional lapse. There seemed little danger when a Cruzeiro throw from the left was hurled into the area, but Mammana sliced his clearance into the danger area and then failed to accompany Gabriel Xavier, who was in on goal when centre forward Leandro Damiao won an important header. Xavier's shot struck the keeper and fell for Marquinhos to tap in from close range.
It sealed an away win that was greatly celebrated by the visiting Cruzeiro fans. The performance, though, was not quite as impressive as the scoreline; Cruzeiro still give the impression of a side that is in the process of formation.
After winning two consecutive domestic titles, the team was broken up when key players were suddenly sold at the start of the year. The most important replacement was young Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta, a talented and intelligent player who has enjoyed some special moments with his new club, but who is still struggling to impose himself on a regular basis.
Essentially a collective player, De Arrascaeta often looks isolated in a team which tends to be very stretched out. He is looking to form little partnerships and play his way into the game, but often it is not happening and he remains a peripheral figure. Cruzeiro looked more dangerous after he was replaced early in the second half by the more individualistic Gabriel Xavier.
Perhaps it is harsh to criticise Cruzeiro after a famous away win, in which the home side had few clear cut chances, has put them within touching distance of the semifinals. And the good news for the Brazilian club is that, after next week's second legs, the Libertadores shuts down for over a month and a half as the national teams take the stage for the Copa America. Assuming his side can seal their semifinal place, then, Cruzeiro coach Marcelo Oliveira will have plenty of time to search for a better blend.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.