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Jul 5, 2012

Corinthian values

The 2012 Copa Libertadores final ended up being fought out between two of South America's biggest clubs. Boca Juniors, one of the competition's most successful sides, who have six titles and are only one behind all-time record holders Independiente, and Corinthians, a club that despite their grand stature were hoping to win their first ever Copa. After a hard-fought couple of legs, it was Corinthians who came out on top, to become the 23rd different club to win the trophy.

The semi-finals proved to be as much a clash of styles as I'd predicted on ESPNsoccernet before they were played, with freewheeling attacking sides taking on more solid, counter-attacking teams. One thing I didn't predict is that defending champions Santos would be eliminated by Corinthians.

It was another tie in which Neymar was allowed to do little or nothing. He'd already been largely marked out of the quarter-final with Velez Sarsfield, and was ineffective against Corinthians in the semi. He's so good that he still managed to make contributions in both ties - he was fouled by Velez goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero, who was sent off, early in the second leg of the quarter-final, and scored from about six inches out to temporarily level the tie against Corinthians, making it 1-0 on the night in the second leg (Corinthians would later level on the night to go through 2-1 on aggregate). One can't help thinking, though, that he needs to have more practice playing against defences who get tight to him before he can truly reach the level that Pele, for one, seems quite vocally to believe he's already at.

After Universidad de Chile almost entirely forget how to play football in their semi-final with Boca Juniors and were comfortably dispatched, the final saw a meeting between the two sides I'd described as more defence-based. It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't without interest, either.

One thing we saw was a young Brazilian making precisely the opposite sort of contribution to that of Neymar's frustrating last few matches in the competition. With Boca leading 1-0 late in the first leg, Corinthians boss Tite sent young striker Romarinho into the fray for his Copa Libertadores debut. The substitution worked spectacularly - just two minutes later, Romarinho was running onto a through ball and chipping it over Boca goalkeeper Agustin Orion to level the scores with his very first touch. Quite a way to announce one's arrival in continental competition, and indeed professional football - it was only his fourth appearance for Corinthians' first team.

It's that kind of occurrence which had many in Brazil wondering whether this might finally be Corinthians' year - throughout the tournament they've been the beneficiaries, in the eyes of many, of a certain amount of luck, and many thought they seemed to have the sorte de campeao, or 'luck of champions' on their side.

Talk ahead of the second leg in Brazil, though, was about Corinthians' goalkeeper Cassio and their manager Tite, and their vital roles in the progression to the final. Julio Cesar began the season in goal, but was unceremoniously dropped after two bad errors saw Corinthians eliminated in the quarter-finals of the Paulista state championship. Cassio came in to replace him and didn't concede a goal in the knockout stages until Neymar's bundled 39th minute goal in the second leg of the semi. Tite was praised for that and the other changes he made when injuries started to hit during the course of their run.

Boca, meanwhile, found their main talking point between the first and second legs to be the status of first leg goalscorer Facundo Roncaglia. The right-back has signed a deal to move to Fiorentina, but initially agreed to extend his Boca contract a few days beyond the normal 30th June cut-off point in order to feature in the second leg. A wrangle over his insurance policy, though, meant his participation was still in doubt on the morning of the game, and he didn't end up featuring.

Vital in Boca's run, as ever, was Juan Roman Riquelme, who rather overshadowed Corinthians' achievement - at least as far as media coverage outside Brazil is concerned - by announcing after the match that he feels 'empty', and is leaving Boca. My initial thought is to remember that he's already retired from the national team twice, and said earlier this season that he'd consider it if he was called up again, so he's not necessarily gone for good, but taking his words at face value, replacing him next season is going to be a monumental task - where Boca go from here will be fascinating to see.

One man who made more of a mark than Riquelme was Emerson Sheik (so named due to seasons spent playing in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates), scorer of both Corinthians' goals in their second leg win on Wednesday night - the first after a brilliant back-heeled volley from Danilo to set him up - to give them a 2-0 win on the night, 3-1 on aggregate. Boca had been superior in the first leg, but Corinthians were the far more energetic and threatening side on their own turf, and Emerson's second, taking advantage of an atrocious (and uncharacteristic) pass from centre back Rolando Schiavi, sealed a fully-deserved win.

Tite, once mocked for constantly changing his side without rhyme or reason at crucial points of the season, has finally, after a couple of decades as a manager, banished such criticism from the Brazilian press, and was given a huge ovation by fans post-match.

Corinthians might not have been pretty to watch during this competition, but any side that can strangle the life out of the defending champions in the semi-final, and then overcome a team as strong as Boca in the final, more than deserve their title. For the first time, Brazil's biggest club are able to call themselves champions of South America. They'll thank their goalkeeper, and that 'luck of champions', but Tite's role - and Emerson and Romarinho's goals - in their win will remain long in the memory.

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