Copa Libertadores returns with a bang
It hasn't taken long for South America to get back into the swing of footballing things after the World Cup. The leagues in Brazil, Colombia and Chile have already started up again, and on Tuesday it was time to settle down and enjoy something fans across the continent (especially the south of the continent) had been waiting a couple of months for; the Copa Libertadores semifinals are finally upon us.
It's felt like a wide-open Copa all year, and that's reflected in the spread of semifinalists; four teams from four different nations, with none of the clubs left in it ever having lifted the trophy before. Indeed, Tuesday's match pitted two sides who are far from being the normal competitors from their countries at continental level.
It took place in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, and saw Nacional de Paraguay hosting Defensor Sporting of Uruguay. While Nacional are one of Paraguay's grandes ('big clubs'), they're some way behind the giants of Olimpia, Cerro Porteno and Libertad, both in terms of titles won and Libertadores experience.
Defensor, meanwhile, like almost every other club in Uruguay, live in the shadow of the Uruguayan Nacional and their great rivals Penarol; those two giants have eight Copas between them, but Defensor this year are the only the second Uruguayan club from outside that duopoly to reach the Libertadores semifinals (Danubio did it previously, in 1989).
Coming into the first leg, Defensor certainly seemed the more likely winners. They'd topped their group with ease, and in the quarterfinals they'd comfortably seen off Atletico Nacional of Colombia with a very impressive 3-0 aggregate victory. Yet it was Nacional, whose campaign thus far has been comparatively parsimonious, who came out stronger. A Brian Montenegro strike meant the hosts were 1-0 up by halftime and Defensor were playing like a team who didn't realise there was a match on.
They looked a lot sharper in the second half -- or in its early stages at least -- but a second goal for Nacional, well taken by Derlis Orue, midway through the second half gave the Paraguayans a cushion. Having won their previous two home knockout games 1-0 (over Argentine sides Velez Sarsfield and Arsenal de Sarandi), they've gone one better this time.
Defensor won't treat that tie as over, though. They've overturned a 2-0 deficit to go through once already in this year's Copa: In the round of 16, after losing away in the altitude of La Paz to The Strongest, Defensor managed to win the second leg at home by the same margin with a thoroughly dominant performance, and progressed on penalties.
If The Strongest managed to make the advantage of altitude tell for only that long, one of their fellow Bolivian heavyweights have done rather better; for the first time since the Copa ditched the previous system of initial groups followed by two second stage groups of three sides prior to a final, a Bolivian side have made the semis.
The club in question are Bolivar, who in a Football-Manager-meets-real-life twist ended up obliged to prepare for two matches on the same day after authorities in Bolivia insisted their visit to Oriente Petrolero in the semifinal of the Bolivian League Cup would kick off almost at the same time as their Libertadores first leg was due to finish.
Bolivar unsurprisingly sent a reserve team to the domestic clash, which in the end was cancelled due to a floodlight failure; it will now be played on Wednesday evening instead.
In the end, though, Bolivar might as well have sent the kids to Buenos Aires to play the Libertadores instead, because the first-team squad -- which includes Spaniards Juanmi Callejon and Jose Luis Sanchez Capdevila -- got absolutely thumped, 5-0 by San Lorenzo, a side with some history of their own to write.
San Lorenzo are, indisputably, a big club. One of Argentina's traditional "Big Five" -- the others are River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing and Independiente -- they nonetheless have one itch their fans are dying to scratch. Because San Lorenzo are the only one of the "Big Five" who have yet to win the Copa Libertadores.
Life has been good for San Lorenzo fans lately; they're proud to have the Pope on their side, they won the Torneo Inicial in the second half of last year, and a deal is moving closer to finally move back to a stadium on the site of their original one -- a site they were forced out of by a high-ranking official during the country's last military dictatorship. A maiden Libertadores win would just add to the current feel-good factor at the club.
And now they're in touching distance of the final. Wednesday's first leg was a match decided, ultimately, by Bolivar's astonishing failure to mark on set pieces; Mauro Matos opened the scoring unmarked five minutes in, Emmanuel Mas doubled the lead 20-ish minutes later and would go on to add the fifth in similar fashion -- an unmarked header from a free kick -- late on. In between, to prove they don't just need defensive errors to score, there were two fine goals from midfielders Juan Mercier and Julio Buffarini.
Any side having to travel to La Paz for the second leg with only a narrow lead would be nervous, but it's difficult to escape the feeling now that, however much of a difference the altitude makes, it surely isn't going to make this much of a difference. The other tie might be close if Defensor can score early, but it would take something truly astonishing for San Lorenzo to go out now.
The second legs are next week, so Libertadores addicts don't have to wait anything like as long for our next fix as we had to between the quarters and this stage. And thank heavens for that. We're already guaranteed a first-time winner whatever happens, but in this competition, we've still got a way to go to find out who it'll be.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPN FC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both U.K.) and Howler (U.S.) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the Internet's finest (OK, only) English-language Argentine football podcast and tweets as @HEGS_com.