Down to business in the Copa
As Europe winds down for the club season and gears up for the European Championship, football in South America is just getting to the business stage of the season. In Brazil, the national championship started last weekend; elsewhere, such as here in Argentina, the title race (and River Plate's push for promotion) enters its final stretch, with three rounds of matches left after this weekend. And right at the top of the club game, the identities of the semi-finalists in the Copa Libertadores are now known.
It's a tasty semi-final lineup, too, featuring both defending champions Santos and Universidad de Chile, winners of last year's Copa Sudamericana, the region's second tier continental competition, being joined by two giants of their domestic leagues. Santos take on fellow Brazilians Corinthians, the most-supported club in the continent's largest city. Universidad de Chile, more succinctly known as 'La U', have to get past the club who dominated the competition in the early years of the current century; Boca Juniors.
Both ties are interesting clashes of styles, with last year's two trophy winners both widely lauded as great teams to watch, while their semi-final opponents are better known for solid defences and an ability to punish any opening they're given. The dynamics of each tie will be very different, too; whilst Santos and Corinthians have only just started the Brazilian national season after mixed performances in Sao Paulo's state championship (for the record, Santos won it for the second year running, while Corinthians went out to Ponte Preta in the quarter-finals), both La U and Boca are moving into the crunch stage of their domestic campaigns; going into the international break, Boca have three matches left and are very much still in the title race, whilst La U are in the play-off stage of Chile's 2012 Torneo Apertura.
As if to underline what a fascinating year it's been so far in the Libertadores, all four of the quarter-finals were decided by the finest of margins - two on penalties, and two by goals in the dying moments of the second leg.
Both Santos' tie against Argentine side Velez Sarsfield, and La U's against Paraguayans Libertad, went to penalties. Santos and Velez both won their home matches 1-0, with Velez putting up a spirited defensive showing in the second leg in Brazil after having goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero sent off in the first half for a foul just outside the box on Neymar. Santos' eventual breakthrough with twelve minutes to go, to take the tie to penalties seemed inevitable (there's no extra time in the Libertadores, so if aggregate scores and away goals are level after ninety minutes of the second leg, it goes straight to a shootout). It masked a very good performance from a tiring Velez team, though, not least from young right back Gino Peruzzi, who must have added two or three zeroes to the end of his transfer valuation having kept Neymar very quiet throughout both legs.
La U and Libertad drew both legs 1-1, and theirs was the only tie not to feature any goals in the last quarter of an hour. The two ties which didn't go to penalties were decided very late on. Corinthians and Vasco da Gama bored the pants off everyone, by and large, until Paulinho struck for Corinthians with a header from a corner with just a couple of minutes to go to win the tie 1-0 on aggregate. Boca's winner came even later, Santiago Silva pouncing in stoppage time to equalise 1-1 away to Fluminense and prevent penalties with a 2-1 aggregate win in a rematch between the sides who'd both qualified from the same group.
There weren't many goals in the quarters, then; no side scored more than one in a match. The first knockout round, though, had already seen plenty - Boca squeezed through 5-3 against Chile's Union Espanola, but Santos and Universidad de Chile both got eye-catching results. La U overturned a 4-1 deficit from the high-altitude first leg away to Ecuador's Deportivo Quito, winning the return 6-0 with a breathtaking performance. That came just after Santos, who'd also lost away at altitude, 2-1 to Bolivian side Bolivar, had rattled in eight goals without reply back at their own ground. The Santos performance was actually slightly less impressive than La U's, largely because their opponents appeared to have been substituted for couch potatoes during the two weeks between the two legs.
Boca have proven a more open side than the team which won Argentina's Apertura five months ago while breaking a record for the least-breached defence of Argentina's 'short championship' era, but have still shown they can keep things tight and do just enough when the going gets tough. Corinthians, though they've administered a couple of comfortable wins, have, in the main, got to this stage on the back of only two goals conceded in ten matches.
On the face of it then it looks as if it's going to be a case of freewheeling Santos and La U against more pragmatic Corinthians and Boca. In reality, though, there willl be other dimensions to the semi-finals. Santos and Corinthians already know one another very well, (that semi-final is a derby, in fact - the classico alvinegro as it's known in Brazil, or black-and-white derby), while Boca against Universidad de Chile should be a really interesting tie, not least because Boca have the strength in depth and adaptability to try going toe-to-toe with their opponents should La U take the lead.
There's also the interesting prospect of seeing how Matias Rodriguez - who before the tie begins will be in the Argentina squad for next weekend's World Cup qualifier at home to Ecuador - does against his former club Boca. Rodriguez is expected to move to Europe before long, with Manchester City recently among the clubs travelling to Santiago to scout him.
At this point I'd make Santos narrow favourites to retain their title, but with two such intriguing semi-finals starting in mid-June, it's going to be very interesting seeing who's left standing at the end.
Follow Sam Kelly on Twitter - @HEGS_com