Atletico Nacional, Independiente del Valle seek shock Copa final berths
The last two winners of the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League, were from Argentina, interrupting a run of four consecutive Brazilian victories. The continent's "big two" share most of the titles; the last time the trophy slipped their grasp was in 2008, when Ecuador's LDU Quito triumphed over Fluminense. Colombia's Once Caldas defeated Boca Juniors to secure the title in 2004.
This year's edition of the competition may still result in an Argentina vs. Brazil final. But going into the second legs of the semifinals, the teams from Ecuador and Colombia are in the lead.
In the strongest position are Colombia's Atletico Nacional, who won last week's first leg 2-0 away to Sao Paulo of Brazil. It was a truly remarkable result, in some ways a new low point for Brazilian football.
The Copa Libertadores shut down for six weeks during the Copa America Centenario. During that time, Atletico Nacional were not competing regularly, while Sao Paulo were in action every few days in the Brazilian Championship. The Colombian side, moreover, lost two key players, while the much richer Brazilian squad made the loan move of centre-back and captain Maicon permanent. The deal -- one of the most expensive signings in the history of Brazilian club football -- was the kind of move that Nacional could never match. But their cut-price addition, centre-forward Miguel Borja, scored both goals in a thoroughly deserved 2-0 win -- aided by a (perhaps harsh) red card for Maicon.
Nacional moved the ball with clarity and intelligence, while Sao Paulo looked bereft of all ideas. The Brazilians, then, will look to come up with something special in Wednesday's second-leg match in Medellin.
At the start of the year, the sale of centre-back Oscar Murillo left room for doubt regarding Nacional's defence. Murillo's pace made him an excellent partner for Alexis Henriquez, who was part of the Once Caldas squad that won the Copa Libertadores title back in 2004. Henriquez is clever but was never quick, and at 33 he is slowing up. His new partner Davinson Sanchez has speed, height and promise -- he will join Ajax in the Netherlands at the end of the competition -- but is still raw and capable of producing the occasional error.
Sao Paulo will therefore be tasked with putting this duo under sufficient pressure to make them crack. The fear is that Nacional will spend much of the game weaving their passing pattern and making Sao Paulo chase after the ball. But if the visitors can score the first goal, then there may yet be some drama in store.
The other semifinal cannot possibly be anything but dramatic. Boca Juniors, six-time champions from Argentina, are at home in their world famous, intimidating stadium, La Bombonera, against Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, a club who were playing in their country's third division a mere decade ago.
Independiente can perhaps be compared to the unfancied James Braddock stepping into Madison Square Garden to fight the fearsome Max Baer for the heavyweight title of the world back in 1935. Braddock, who won a famous victory, was the "Cinderella Man."
The Ecuador side are already living a fairy tale. Round after round they have gone into fearsome arenas and held firm; they knocked Colo Colo out of the competition inside a packed Estadio Monumental in Santiago, ended the run of last year's champions, River Plate, away in Buenos Aires, and shrugged off an early sending off to come through on penalties against Pumas in Mexico City.
Last week, Independiente came from behind to beat Boca 2-1 in Quito. Now they will hope to cope with everything that Carlos Tevez and company can throw at them and seek to land some counter punches of their own. It was clear in the first leg that Bryan Cabezas, Independiente's teenage left-winger, had the Boca right-back's number. With more space to operate, he could cause some damage and serve as a supply line for strong centre-forward Jose Angulo in the second leg. Alternatively, La Bombonera could prove to be a beanstalk too steep for giant-killing Independiente to climb. Either way, a tense and intriguing 90 minutes are to come.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.