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Jul 15, 2013

History beckons for Copa finalists

And then there were two. The first leg of the Copa Libertadores final, on Wednesday night, will be played between one team that are giants of the continental game and another that are on the verge of their greatest ever success.

Oddly, considering that a Brazilian side are playing a Paraguayan side, those roles are reversed from what a new observer of South American football might expect. Atletico Mineiro, with Ronaldinho their attacking fulcrum, are making club history. This will be only their fourth continental final - and by some distance the most prestigious - with the previous three having all come during the 1990s in the Copa CONMEBOL (a precursor to the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's second tier competition). Champions of Brazil in 1971, the first truly national Brazilian championship season, they have won no top-level trophies since (though they won two of those three Copa CONMEBOL finals). Yet this marks the ninth year in a row in which a Brazilian side has featured in the Libertadores final.

Olimpia, though they hail from a country that has been far less powerful in South American footballing history, are old hands at this by comparison. Indeed, they are making history on an entirely different level: this will be their seventh Libertadores final, which have spanned six - consecutive - decades. As far as I can ascertain, reaching finals in six consecutive decades is a feat unmatched in top-level continental competition anywhere in the world. Olimpia have won three of those finals (including their most recent, in 2002). A fourth title would draw them level with Estudiantes de La Plata as the joint-fourth most successful side in Libertadores history.

Neither had it all their own way in qualifying for the main event. The semi-finals proved as competitive as expected, with one record arguably even more impressive than Olimpia's achievement being extended. Just before half-time in the first leg of Olimpia's semi against Independiente Santa Fe of Colombia, both sides had a man sent off. Juan Manuel Salgueiro's red card for Olimpia was unfathomable - his 'crime' was to be pushed over. The man doing the pushing, and seeing red for Santa Fe, was 37-year-old defensive midfielder Gerardo Bedoya.

The reason I'm taking a moment to salute Bedoya is that it was the 43rd red card of his professional career. That's not just a world record, it's a world record by a fantastic margin - Tomas Repka apparently picked up either 19 or 20 reds, while Jimmy Johnstone got either 20 or 22 (some figures I've found for him include a couple during his season with San Jose Earthquakes, others don't). Even with those figures not being totally reliable, Bedoya is way out in front. If you're aware of any dirtier players, I'd love to hear about them on Twitter.

Anyway, back to the football. Olimpia eventually won that match, taking a deserved 2-0 lead to Bogota for the second leg. It was a lead they needed - they have never won in the Colombian capital and had never scored in two previous visits to El Campin, the stadium Santa Fe share with fellow Colombian giants Millonarios. That run continued as Santa Fe got a 1-0 win in the second leg, with Wilder Medina's 75th-minute strike setting up a frantic last 15 minutes. But Olimpia held firm as the clock ticked down and, over the two legs, deserved their win.

The other semi-final was even tighter. Newell's Old Boys were certainly the better side in the first leg, which they won 2-0 with a great display of patience after Atletico had been fortunate to go in at the break with the game still goalless. Two of their heroes of the season, Maxi Rodriguez and Ignacio Scocco, weighed in with second-half goals and gave them the cushion they wanted. Atletico had struggled to get past the halfway line during the first half, and things didn't look good for them.

Newell's planned to attack in the second leg, knowing an away goal would all but end the tie. Their plans were undone almost immediately, though, with young star Bernard latching onto a sumptuous pass from Ronaldinho after less than three minutes to give Atletico the start they needed and force the visitors onto the back foot. In the first half, Newell's had been about as awful as Atletico were in the first leg. But in the second, they found their feet and were growing in confidence (though still forced to play on the counter) before a floodlight failure took the momentum out of the match. When it restarted, ten minutes or so later, Guilherme's late, late goal took matters to a penalty shootout, which the hosts won.

The losers are faced with contrasting situations. Santa Fe are involved in the final of the Colombian championship, and will play the second leg on Wednesday night, having drawn the first 0-0 away to Atletico Nacional on Sunday. Newell's have no such consolation, with their domestic season over before the semi-final had even kicked off.

Newell's priority now is rebuilding; the new Argentine season begins in a few weeks. Manager Gerardo Martino has left, as he always said he would once the Libertadores campaign ended, to be replaced by reserve coach Alfredo Berti. Top scorer Ignacio Scocco is the most prominent of the players who will be leaving, though Gabriel Heinze (out for a month and a half with an injury picked up in the second leg against Atletico) and Maxi Rodriguez should both stay. The new manager's focus will be on keeping together as much of the core as possible. All the same, for a side threatened with relegation 12 months ago, it has been a remarkable turnaround.

On to greater things, though, for our two finalists. Will it be a maiden title for Atletico - one that would help Ronaldinho into the select club of players who've won both Libertadores and European Cup - or an historic fourth for Olimpia? We'll know before too long.

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