Fairy-tale run rolls on for Independiente del Valle in the Copa Libertadores
The remarkable story of Independiente del Valle goes on. The tiny club from Ecuador have tumbled the giants of South American football one after one. Now they go through to the final of the Copa Libertadores after beating Argentina's Boca Juniors -- six-time champions -- in both home and away legs of the semifinal.
Ahead 2-1 after last week's match in Ecuador, Independiente stepped into the intimidating atmosphere of Boca's Bombonera stadium, one of the most iconic venues in the world. As befits a fairy tale, the big bad wolf showed all of his teeth at the start. Roared on by their supporters, Boca came straight out of the blocks at full speed. On a cold, wet night in Buenos Aires, the blood was aflame. The Ecuadorian defenders looked shell-shocked, slipping around on treacherous turf, and within four minutes Boca were ahead on the night, and by virtue of the away goals rule ahead on aggregate.
The pressure was such that Independiente could hardly get out of their own penalty area. An attempt to do so gave the ball away to Boca left-back Frank Fabra, whose early ball curled behind the defensive line was not cut out, and at the far post Cristian Pavon hooked past the keeper.
A few minutes later Independiente's left-back Luis Ayala slipped in possession. Pavon bore down on goal. He could have shot, but chose to slide square to give Carlos Tevez a tap in. The ball, though, was just too far in front of Tevez, and centre-back Arturo Mina got back to help his keeper Liber Azcona clear the danger. It proved to be a turning point. Ayala, a bag of nerves, was substituted before half-time and by then Independiente had drawn level.
Mina and his centre-back partner Luis Caicedo might have been faulted for the Boca goal. But they made amends at the other end. A corner was aimed for Mina at the near post. He could not get a clean connection but the ball fell for Caicedo to strike home left-footed and the teams went to the break level at a goal apiece.
It set up the prospect of a tense second half. Boca needed one more to force a penalty shootout, or two to go through. Could they reproduce some of their slick first-half passing? Could Tevez get into the game? The star No. 10 had been a peripheral figure in the opening 45 minutes. This had been built up as the easiest semifinal in Boca's history -- proclaimed as such by former idol Juan Roman Riquelme. So could the team's current idol come to the party?
Instead, within five minutes of the restart the tie was all but decided. There was always a suspicion that with the team pushing forward, Boca's slow defence might be punished by the rapid Independiente counter-attack, and so it proved. Azcona punted upfield, and two flick-ons put left winger Bryan Cabezas behind Boca right-back Leonardo Jara. Cabezas, a teenager who exemplifies the excellence of Independiente's youth policy, drilled a right-footed shot low into the far corner.
Then it was custard pie time in the Boca defence. A punt upfield drew keeper Agustin Orion out of his goal. He under-hit a pass to his centre-back Daniel Diaz, and right winger Julio Angulo had the simple task of getting there first and running the ball into the empty net.
Boca now needed to score four more goals and it never looked likely. There was a brief ray of hope when a Mina handball presented them with a penalty, but the left-footed shot from Nicolas Lodeiro was weak and comfortably saved. By the time Mina cleared off the line from Pavon, many of the Boca fans had already streamed away. They missed a fine solo goal from Pavon in stoppage time, but it was for naught.
Boca, then, previously unbeaten in the tournament, had lost both legs to the tiny team from Ecuador, who now go on to meet Atletico Nacional of Colombia in a two-legged final. Independiente del Valle have never won their domestic league title, but now they are two games away from giving their own fairy tale a happy ending that none could have foreseen at the kick off of this year's Copa Libertadores.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.