Upstart Lanus look to spring a surprise vs. storied Gremio in Libertadores final
For the first time since 2012, the Copa Libertadores' two-legged final is between teams from Brazil and Argentina. And to add extra attraction, both Gremio and Lanus are attractive sides who generally demonstrate a commitment to eye-pleasing, attacking football.
Perhaps inevitably, though, there is some controversy in the build-up to Wednesday's first leg. Gremio stand accused of hiring a specialist to spy on Lanus training sessions with the use of a drone. The Brazilian club deny all knowledge of the incident, and even if it is true, Lanus are a side with few secrets.
For several years now, they have favoured a 4-3-3 system. In its current incarnation, veteran centre-forward Jose Sand is flanked by the Uruguayan Alejandro Silva, who normally operates down the right, and the Argentine international Lautaro Acosta, an elusive runner down the left often seeking to cut in onto his stronger right foot. The midfield trio is anchored by Ivan Marcone, with Roman Martinez organising the play to his right, and Nico Pasquini providing dynamism to his left.
It is the formation that has stood the club in good stead in recent years, and under coach Jorge Almiron they were Argentine champions last year. From a southern suburb of Buenos Aires, they are not one of the country's traditional giants. That, of course, made it all the more remarkable when they staged an epic comeback against the mighty River Plate to book their place in the final.
Having lost the away leg 1-0, they were two goals down in the return game, and with just over 45 minutes to go, they needed to score four times to qualify. They got them all, sending a powerful message to their next opponents: Lanus might be taking part in their debut Libertadores final, but they are not to be underestimated.
Gremio, meanwhile, have much more tradition. They have won the trophy on two occasions, in 1983 and 1995. This is their first final since losing to Argentine opposition, Boca Juniors, a decade ago.
From Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, there is a Uruguayan-style sense of ruggedness to the club's self image. The current team, under former star Renato Portaluppi, belie that reputation with a neat passing game, in which two young stars have key roles. One is little Arthur, an Andres Iniesta-type midfielder who has emerged in the past few months. The other is support striker Luan, perhaps the best player currently operating in domestic Brazilian football. Tall and elegant, he is a master at finding space in between the opposing lines and generating danger with his clever prompting and vicious shooting. Experienced Paraguayan international centre-forward Lucas Barrios gives them a cutting edge, though the sale to Russia of his attacking partner Pedro Rocha appears to have weakened the front line.
Where Gremio can expect to achieve a significant advantage is in defence. They have a solid centre-back partnership, comprised of the masterful Pedro Geromel and the cruder talents of the Argentine Walter Kannemann, a Libertadores winner in his native land with San Lorenzo three years ago. In contrast, the Lanus pairing of Paraguayan Rolando Garcia Guerreno and Diego Braghieri looks ponderous and porous. In front of them, Marcone will need to stay focused on the movements of Luan.
It will be interesting to see how much Lanus will focus on defensive solidity in Wednesday's first leg, staged in Gremio's new stadium. The away-goals rule is not in operation for the final, so the quest to score on the road (or not to concede at home) will not be as important a consideration as in previous rounds.
In their past two away games in the competition, Lanus did not score a goal. In River Plate's stadium it was very clear that Silva and Acosta were forced back, tracking the forward runs of the opposition's attacking full-backs. If that happens, Sand, who is not quick, can easily be isolated and the team can be pushed right back into its own half. Once the wingers start flying forward, then the attacking game of Lanus begins to flow -- but there is space behind for the opposition to exploit.
This, then, promises to be one of the key features of Wednesday's first leg. Will the Lanus wingers choose to stick, or will they try to twist the blood of their markers? Which team will impose itself down the flanks?
Gremio go into the final as favourites. They have won more games on the way, scoring more goals than their rivals and conceding fewer. But Lanus showed in the semifinal that they cannot be discounted until the final whistle is blown in their stadium at the end of next week's return match.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.