After outlasting Pachuca, Gremio eyeing dream final vs. Real Madrid
Gremio did not have to overcome Mexican opposition to become champions of the 2017 Copa Libertadores. The extension of the competition -- all year round instead of the previous squeeze into the first semester -- forced the Mexicans to withdraw. It was fitting, then, that the team standing between Gremio and the FIFA Club World Cup final was CONCACAF champions Pachuca.
The Brazilians move on to Saturday's decider (against either Real Madrid or Al Jazira) after going through the traditional nerve racking semifinal. Every year since the competition began in 2000 this stage has been difficult for the South Americans, who three times have fallen at this stage.
The problems are twofold. Firstly, it means too much -- as could be seen from the army of Gremio fans who, at short notice and at great expense, had made the trip to the United Arab Emirates to cheer on their team. Taking on the winners of the Champions League in the final is the big dream. Going into the semifinal it is so tantalizingly close -- but yet so far away. Losing at this stage would be seen as a massive humiliation.
The other reason is the decline of club football in South America. Serving as an export industry has taken its toll. There is a lack of individual quality and a dearth of ideas. There is no longer a significant superiority over the champions of the game's less traditional continents. The South American clubs are no longer built to take the initiative, to carry the game to the opposition, and have always had to battle their way through the semifinal.
This game was no exception. Gremio are a ball playing side -- though they were without injured midfielder Arthur, whose absence through injury robs the team of some of its fluency. Pachuca, then, had more of the ball. It was hard, though, to see where a Mexican goal might come from. Their leading attacking talent, Uruguayan international Jonathan Urreteviscaya, had an awful game, almost every touch an error. Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda was their best player, finding space to open up the field with subtle changes of direction. But Pachuca kept running into Gremio centre-back Pedro Geromel, a player in imperious form at the present.
Twice it seemed that Honda might give Pachuca the lead. Both times he was prevented from pulling the trigger by fine pieces of covering from Gremio left back Bruno Cortes -- and these two incidents tell much about Gremio's successful year.
The club are doing an excellent job producing their own players -- such as Arthur, or intelligent support striker Luan, named as the best player of the Libertadores. And to general surprise, coach Renato Portaluppi has added plenty to the mix.
A winger with the body of a centre-back, he was a top player in his day, and was Gremio's star man back in 1983 when they won their first Libertadores title and then beat Hamburg in the old Intercontinental Cup. He rates himself as better than Cristiano Ronaldo -- and it is that kind of peacock boastfulness that led many to doubt that he would have much a coaching career -- that and the reputation he appeared to covet as a beach-obsessed layabout.
But he has belied that stereotype. And Gremio's success this year has much to do with him. He inherited a passing style and some good youngsters. But he has coaxed fine performances out of players who many had regarded as past their sell by date or simply not good enough.
Cortes, for instance, emerged a few years back as a swashbuckling attacking left-back without a defensive thought in his head. His limitations were exposed when a move to Benfica in Portugal did not work out, and he spent two unremarkable years in Japan before Gremio brought him back this year to be their reserve. An injury to first-choice Marcelo Oliveira gave him his chance, and he has looked like a different player -- more cautious, but much better defensively.
Gremio's year is full of such stories, tales of where Renato has seen potential, shown confidence and reaped the rewards. Without the new found defensive awareness of Cortes, Gremio would probably have gone behind.
But, in flashes, they always looked like the more dangerous side, especially from set pieces. Renato shuffled his deck. As the game wore on he switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3. Fernandinho switched to the right wing, and on came elusive little Everton to fill the space he vacated.
Going into extra time, Pachuca's impressive young Uruguayan coach Diego Alonso made a change. Centre forward Franco Jara had made little impression. He was replaced by a defender, Robert Herrera, as the Mexicans switched from a back four to a three centre-back formation. It soon proved a mistake. There was too much space for Everton when he received a throw in down the left. He cut in past full-back Jose Martinez and went across Omar Gonzalez. Herrera did not come across to shut the gate, and Everton had enough room to curl a right-foot shot into the far top corner.
Effectively that was the end of the game. Pachuca lacked the lung power, physicality and quality to find an equalizer, and Gremio were happy to run down the clock and launch the occasional counterattack.
They now await the winner of Wednesday's semifinal between Al Jazira and Real Madrid. A shock win for the former would greatly boost Gremio's chance of winning the title, but they would far prefer to do it by beating the Spaniards. Renato Portaluppi, then, will he hoping to get a close-range view of Cristiano Ronaldo.
And a closing thought; if Mexico are to stay out of the Libertadores, perhaps the fact that this game was so evenly balanced might have whet some appetites for some version of a Champions League for the Americas.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.