Atletico Nacional too powerful for Independiente del Valle in Copa final
So there was no fairy tale ending to the 2016 Copa Libertadores. Little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador fell at the final hurdle, losing 1-0 in the second leg and 2-1 on aggregate to Atletico Nacional of Colombia, who win South America's major club title for the second time in their history.
It was the right result. Nacional were the better team on the night, over the two legs and during the entire competition. The excellence of their record speaks for itself: 10 wins, three draws, just one defeat, with 25 goals scored and only six conceded.
Moreover, Nacional have had to reinvent themselves in the course of the campaign, though always respecting an identity of intelligent passing football. The team that won the Colombian league last December not only lost international defender Oscar Murillo but Jefferson Duque, their only centre-forward, as well. The loan acquisition of Victor Ibarbo filled the gap, with the international midfielder frequently improvised up front. But he was one of two players to leave during the pause for the Copa America.
Miguel Borja, a genuine centre-forward was brought in, and clicked immediately. In four games (both legs of the semifinal and the final) he scored five times, including the goal that clinched the title.
Nacional made a declaration of intent right at the start of the second leg when attacking midfielder Alejandro Guerra was brought in for the suspended, more defensively minded Sebastian Perez. In front of their own fans in Medellin, the Colombians were aiming to take the initiative, to pass their way through the Independiente defence.
The Ecuadorians opted to press up, to attempt to interrupt Nacional's passing game by denying space to Guerra and playmaker Macnelly Torres. They nearly paid the price in the first 10 seconds.
Straight into their stride, Nacional made the ball fizz around, creating space for Guerra to lob a pass over the high defensive line. Borja got himself behind centre -back Arturo Mina, but over enthusiastically blasted high over the bar.
He was not to be denied for long. Another Independiente attempt to break the circuit of Nacional's passing moves ended with them giving away a free kick in a dangerous area. Torres chipped into the corridor of uncertainty between the goalkeeper and the defensive line, Mina's panicky attempt at a clearance glanced the ball off the post and on the swivel, Borja powered in from the rebound.
Before the 10-minute mark, then, the Colombians were ahead, and they could now run the clock down weaving their passing patterns all over the pitch in the Atanasio Girardot stadium.
The danger, though, had been made clear in last week's first leg. If the Colombians failed to kill off the game, there was always a chance of Independiente snatching a goal from a set piece or a counter-attack. The equaliser nearly came from a defensive slip by Guerra, failing to control the ball near the edge of his own area.
Independiente playmaker Junior Sornoza dinked a little ball over the defensive line, but centre-forward Jose Angulo blazed over with his left footed volley.
It was one of the few contributions made by Sornoza to the first half. Coach Pablo Repetto took the bold decision to remove him at the interval. Sornoza's fine striking of the ball is not matched by his dynamism, and he is often rarely seen with the exception of set pieces.
The diminutive Jonny Uchuari made an immediate difference, bringing left winger Bryan Cabezas into the game and very nearly rounding off the move with an equalising goal right at the start of the second half. It was the closest that the Ecuadorians would come. Uchuari was busy, central midfielder Jefferson Orejuela worked overtime to try and knit the side together -- but a goal at the other end always looked more likely.
There was clarity whenever Torres and Guerra combined, danger whenever Marlos Moreno was running at the visiting defence and a sporadic threat from Borja and powerful right winger Orlando Berrio. Just like last week, Nacional were unable to find the second goal their build up play deserved. Unlike last week, there was no late drama of an Independiente equaliser.
And so the magnificent achievement of the Independiente del Valle campaign becomes a memory. But so too does the winning Atletico Nacional side, sure to be broken up by player sales in the next few days. The Colombians will have to reinvent themselves once more before they represent South America at the end of the year in the Club World Cup.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.