Gremio edge through as Santos exit Copa Libertadores in disgrace
Defending champions Gremio of Brazil were just two minutes away from failing to make the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores. Two minutes into stoppage time they were being held 1-1 by Estudiantes of Argentina -- having lost the away leg 2-1 -- and needed a goal to force penalties.
It was looking like the end of the line for coach Renato Portaluppi's side. In the domestic Brazilian league they are down in fifth place, harming their chances by fielding reserve sides and saving their best players for the cup competitions. They recently fell at the quarterfinal stage of the Brazilian Cup and here they seemed to be on their way out in the Libertadores too.
Renato has formed a fine passing team, admirably patient in possession, and Gremio dominated this match. In fact, without an uncharacteristic lapse by centre-back Pedro Geromel they would not have found themselves in such problems.
But they are not as good as they were a year ago. The sale of key midfielder Arthur to Barcelona has clearly weakened the team and playmaker Luan, chosen as South America's best player last year, seems to have hit a rut. Left out of the World Cup squad and not coveted by a European giant, his career seems to be on the wane.
Gremio's defeat to Estudiantes in the first leg three weeks ago was embarrassing. It was Estudiantes' first game of the season, while Gremio were in full flow. They should have dominated but they lost. And, with 120 seconds left, they looked like they would crash out early again.
Then Luan drove in a free kick, little substitute Alisson glanced his header inside the post and the stadium erupted. After saving themselves at the last, there was no way that Gremio were going to lose the penalty shootout. All five of their kicks were struck sweet and true; Estudiantes defender Gaston Campi shot over the bar, and the Gremio adventure goes on.
They will be the only non-Argentine team in their half of the draw. One place will go to the winner of the all-Argentina tie between Racing and River Plate. And on Tuesday night two other Argentine teams also booked their place.
One was a glorious achievement. Atletico Tucuman are a provincial club from the north of the country only taking part in the competition for the second time. They eliminated the 2016 champions Atletico Nacional of Colombia, holding out for a 1-0 defeat in Medellin after winning the first leg 2-0.
The other tie, between two of the competition's great names, reflects little credit on anyone. In last week's first leg, Independiente of Argentina and Santos of Brazil fought out a dismal 0-0 draw. But things got worse as Santos fielded their new signing, Uruguayan World Cup midfielder Carlos Sanchez. He should not have played, having picked up a suspension in 2015 when was with River Plate. Tipped off, Independiente lodged a complaint. By the letter of the law, Santos were in the wrong, although this was an oversight rather than an attempt to gain an unfair advantage. And according to the online checking system, Sanchez appeared to be in the clear.
Having recently punished Chile's Deportes Temuco for a similar offence, it was to be expected that the South American authorities would find against Santos. On the morning of the second leg, it was announced that the first game had been awarded 3-0 to Independiente. In front of their own fans, Santos now had to go for broke.
But it never looked likely. Straight from the kickoff, Santos revealed their nerves, striker Gabriel Barbosa committing a crude foul that set the tone for the match.
Santos huffed and puffed with little thought; Independiente, now buttressed by this big lead, could sit back and wait for the chances to appear. They missed a penalty, hit the underside of the bar and were in such control that, with 10 minutes to go, there was a riot from Santos fans, who threw flares onto the field and attempted a pitch invasion.
The referee abandoned the match, blowing the whistle on a sad episode for South American football.