Atletico Nacional and Miguel Borja end Sao Paolo's Copa Libertadores hopes
Winners on the night by 2-1, and 4-1 on aggregate, Atletico Nacional of Colombia qualified for the final of the Copa Libertadores. Their comprehensive elimination of Sao Paulo means that there is no Brazilian side in the final for the third consecutive year.
It is an extraordinary statistic bearing in mind the financial advantage that Brazilian football now enjoys over their continental rivals. And this year it is even more extraordinary; the six-week pause between the quarter and semifinals should have been a massive advantage for Sao Paulo, who were in regular competitive action in the their domestic league while the Colombian championship took a break. Even so, Sao Paulo managed to lose home and away.
Last week's defeat in Sao Paulo was the decisive game. In Medellin, the Brazilians produced a better performance -- they could hardly have been worse -- and took an early lead. A splendid cross from Michel Bastos, Brazil's 2010 World Cup left-back, created confusion in the home defence and centre-forward Jonathan Calleri beat the keeper at the far post with a looping header back across goal.
Just eight minutes gone and Sao Paulo were halfway toward forcing a penalty shootout or winning outright on away goals. But their lead was quickly cancelled out. Pressing high had its risks, and Nacional quickly exposed them. One pass from Orlando Berrio took out both the Sao Paulo midfield and defence, and home centre-forward Miguel Borja scored with a nicely controlled cross shot.
From a Sao Paulo point of view, 1-1 was better than 0-0. With the away-goals rule in operation, it meant that scoring twice more would send them through automatically, rather than taking the game to a shootout. But where would the goals come from? Sao Paulo had not managed a single away victory in their six previous trips in this tournament, and all of the chances were coming at the other end, of particular note when Marlos Moreno managed to fire over from five yards. Sao Paulo were struggling to cope with his movement, with the strength of Berrio down the right, the artful playmaking of Macnelly Torres and the threat of Borja up front.
Sao Paulo had gone with Ricardo Centurion infield, rather than in his natural wide position in a bid to get him combining with Calleri, a front-to-goal centre-forward whose nose for scoring is much better than his technical ability. On the stroke of half-time, the Brazilians finally managed to play their way through the middle of the Nacional defence. Hudson was through, but went down in the penalty area. Was there a push from right-back Daniel Bocanegra? Possibly, but if so it was the lightest of touches. Could Hudson have reached the ball before keeper Franco Armani or was he going to ground because he thought Armani would get there first? If so, then Chilean referee Particio Polic might have even be justified in showing him a yellow card, which would have meant expulsion.
It was a very tough decision and Polic waved play on, much to the fury of the Brazilians. Beyond all doubt, though, was the superiority of Atletico Nacional, who continued to carve out and spurn a succession of chances in the second half. Sensing Sao Paulo's desperation, they made an eye-raising substitution, replacing central midfielder Sebastian Perez with the more attack-minded Alejandro Guerra. The logic was clear: The Colombians wanted to keep the ball in the Sao Paulo half and take advantage of the space that was opening up.
With 15 minutes to go, a Guerra run down the right forced a penalty when his cross was blocked by the arm of substitute left back Carlinhos. It was clear enough, but Sao Paulo were already in a state of emotional imbalance, and after Borja fired home, they protested so vigorously that, amid confused scenes, Diego Lugano and Wesley were sent off.
At the final whistle their players complained about the refereeing and congratulated themselves on the character they had shown. But, winners in both legs and deservedly through to the final, the real congratulations go to Atletico Nacional, whose players stayed on the field to celebrate with their joyous crowd.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.