Debutants face off in Libertadores final
Is it conceivable that the final of Europe's Champions League could be between two clubs that had never won the trophy?
It probably is. Manchester City against Paris Saint-Germain, for example, would be an easily imaginable conclusion -- because both clubs now have such financial force behind them that they are entitled to aim high. It is an observation that makes the achievement of Atletico Madrid last year all the more praiseworthy. Without such 'financial doping' Atletico beat Barcelona and Real Madrid to win the Spanish title, and came close to triumph in the Champions League.
A repeat performance will be very hard; that team is in the process of being picked apart, as wealthier competitors swoop to sign some of the outstanding players.
In contemporary South America this happens all the time to the biggest of clubs. Brazilian giants Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores title for the first time in 2012, and added the World Club crown as well. But they have not proved able to substitute goal-scoring midfielder Paulinho, sold to England, and did not even qualify for the 2014 version of the Libertadores.
On this side of the Atlantic, then, with things in a permanent state of flux, it is perhaps more conceivable that a Libertadores final could take place between two teams that have yet to win the trophy -- which is the case this year when Nacional of Paraguay meet San Lorenzo of Argentina with the first game of a two-legged showdown kicking off this Thursday.
San Lorenzo are one of their country's traditional clubs -- indeed, of the old time Buenos Aires big five, they are the only one not to have won the Libertadores. They have come close to reaching the final before; they were semifinalists in the debut campaign back in 1960.
Nacional, meanwhile, boast little of this tradition. True, they are an old club, with over a century of history behind them, and they have won some league titles and revealed some great players in their time. But in recent decades they have shrunk; their fan base does not even begin to rival that of Cerro Porteno or Olimpia, Paraguay's big two. They have spent time in the second division and have fallen behind the likes of Guarani in pulling power and Libertad in terms of titles. In six previous Libertadores campaigns they had never even made it out of the group phase. But here they are in the final.
And they will have a full stadium behind them on Wednesday night in the Defensores del Chaco, Asuncion's main football ground. Prices have been kept low in an effort to encourage supporters of other local clubs to come along and cheer for the Paraguayan cause. Home fans will pay between $5 and $20 to watch the game. San Lorenzo's visiting contingent will have to shell out much more -- between $106 and $141.
This is a continent where home advantage counts; since the kickoff back at the end of January, this year's Libertadores has contained 79 home victories to just 25 away. That trend is clearly seen in the retrospective of the two finalists. Of their six home matches, both have won five and drawn one. Neither has managed to win a single away game. Nacional have the slightly better record on the road, with three draws and three defeats, against two and four for San Lorenzo. And unlike the previous knockout rounds, the away goals rule is not in operation in the final -- meaning Nacional need not worry too much about conceding in the first leg, and can look to impose themselves on the game.
This is when the side, coached by interesting young Gustavo Morinigo, are at their best. The midfield are full of dynamism, and get forward at pace in support of Brian Montenegro, a talented left-footed centre-forward who has been brought in for the closing stages of the competition.
Perhaps their best performance of the campaign was the elimination of Velez Sarsfield, who had been shaping up as Argentina's strongest side in the competition.
But this next bunch of Argentines will not be overawed.
San Lorenzo have already fought disciplined rearguard actions away to the likes of Gremio and Cruzeiro of Brazil. They are brimming with experience. Eight of the players who started the second leg of last week's semifinal are 29 or over. And if the club have never won the Libertadores, the same cannot be said of coach Edgardo Bauza, who took Ecuador's Liga of Quito to the title six years ago.
Nacional would prefer things as hot as possible in the Asuncion winter, while San Lorenzo's task will be to take the heat out of the game.
One of the visiting players will be hoping to leave his mark; Ignacio Piatti, one of the key figures in the San Lorenzo side, will not be able to play in the second leg because he is joining Montreal Impact in the MLS.
Intelligent and two-footed, Piatti has been a vital member of the team over the past year, and with three goals is the club's top marksman in this campaign. The club made a special plea to FIFA for him to be available for the finale on Aug. 13, but it seems to no avail. The loss of important players in the course of the campaign is another factor that makes the Copa Libertadores so open and unpredictable.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.