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Jul 2, 2013

Copa glory within sight

The Confederations Cup is over, but true to the stereotype, football just keeps on coming in South America. Almost as soon as Brazil are crowned champions of their own World Cup test run tournament, the semi-finals of the continent's premier club competition get underway.

On Tuesday, Olimpia host Colombian side Independiente Santa Fe in the Paraguayan capital Asunción, and on Wednesday Brazilians Atlético Mineiro visit Rosario to take on Newell's Old Boys, recently crowned Argentine Torneo Final champions.

Both Olimpia and Independiente Santa Fe have had one eye on Tuesday's first leg for some time. In spite of a 2-1 defeat away to Bogotá rivals Millonarios on Saturday, Santa Fe qualified for the final of the Colombian Apertura by virtue of Deportivo Cali's 2-1 loss at home to Once Caldas. Santa Fe's rivalry with Millonarios is a clásico, but no fewer than eleven Santa Fe players had already flown to Asunción on Friday to prepare for Tuesday's game, after a charter flight booked by the club for Saturday night had to be cancelled due to poor uptake from fans (of 110 available seats for fans, only 36 were sold). Seven more players have joined their team-mates in Paraguay since.

Olimpia have also been resting players in the penultimate rounds of Paraguay's Apertura championship, with the title well out of their reach - they played their last match on Friday, and have finished fifth, well adrift of champions Nacional. Olimpia have the fourth best attacking record in the country, but also the fourth worst defensive record, which could be a concern. They've been just as attack-minded in the Libertadores; with almost two goals per game, they have more corners and more shots taken than any of the other semi-finalists. Even though they've played more games (having had to come through a qualifying round), those stats still stand up when corners and shots-per-game are worked out.

Olimpia might also have a few players who've stepped up more than just one level should they feature in the semi-final; Richard Ortiz has left to join Toluca in Mexico, but they've brought in three Argentines, all joining from clubs in their homeland; Ricardo Mazacotte from recently-relegated Unión de Santa Fe, Matías Giménez from second division Huracán, and Nelson Benítez, who's just won a title in the third division with Talleres de Córdoba. Whether those players can make the step up could be key (it's worth acknowledging that Benítez has played for Porto, and returned to Talleres to help his former club's promotion push), but even though Santa Fe's goals in continental competition have been relatively meagre, it should be an entertaining first leg.

The other tie is likely to be the one with more eyes on it, in part because it brings together two sides from the nations which are the continent's two footballing (and media) giants. Atlético Mineiro are the highest-scoring side left in the competition (and have also conceded the most) while Newell's Old Boys recently finished top of Argentina's Torneo Final before losing to Vélez Sarsfield in a title play-off whose value no-one was quite sure of (on Tuesday, the Argentina FA are going to meet to work it out after complaints from various clubs about the structure of the championship).

Atlético are going to be the better-rested side, and as regular readers will be aware, they'll be bringing an in-form Ronaldinho to Rosario with them for Wednesday's match. Atlético will be by far the most well-rested of the four remaining sides, having not played so much as a friendly during the Brasileirão's break for the Confederations Cup, and have kept their side together, including three of Brazil's Confederations Cup squad - Bernard, Réver and Jô.

They'll be taking on a Newell's side who are rather out of sorts. Newell's won the Torneo Final with a game to play and since then they've played three and lost three - one in the Copa Argentina hours after their league title was confirmed, one in the league and one in the above-mentioned 'Superfinal' against Vélez Sarsfield - all by a 1-0 scoreline. Though they've played a good mix of starters and subs in those games, their priority has been clear in each - conserve energy and don't pick up any injuries before the Libertadores semis.

Gerardo Martino, the side's manager, went as far as to call Saturday's Superfinal "a very strange fixture" prior to that game, and admitted that with the Libertadores a clear priority he would be more worried about his players getting injured. In the end, none of them did, and just as importantly they've secured key players including Gabriel Heinze and Ignacio Scocco until the Libertadores campaign ends (all had contracts that were set to expire at the end of June).

Both sides like to play an open game, even though Newell's have found goals harder to come by in the Copa than they have in the league - in spite of having taken almost exactly the same number of shots as Atlético, they've scored nine goals fewer. Ronaldinho and company are a fearsome prospect, and given Newell's' poor luck up front, the Brazilians ought to be narrow favourites for that tie. But if the hosts manage to click, it should be a very entertaining match.

Contrary to previous editions which have suffered long breaks between rounds, then, the squads for the four semi-finalists are largely unchanged from the quarter-finals. Newell's and Olimpia can both concentrate solely on their ties, whilst their opponents both have competitive matches at the weekend, between the two semi-final legs (though Santa Fe's is effectively meaningless since they've already qualified for their domestic final).

The distraction of the warm-up event that is the Confederations Cup was all very enjoyable, but I for one am looking forward to the recommencement of hostilities in a truly competitive tournament on Tuesday night.

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