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Jul 26, 2013

The first time is the sweetest

Victor threw his arms wide and raced towards his team-mates, as the Mineirão exploded. Ronaldinho, smiling broadly, was among the black-and-white-striped group heading to embrace him. The former Barcelona star missed the opportunity to take the final penalty to hand the competition to his team, but no one cared; Matias Giménez's penalty miss moments earlier had handed Atlético Mineiro their first Copa Libertadores.

They didn't make it easy for themselves. They were thoroughly outplayed in Asunción by Olimpia. The Paraguayans fully deserved their 2-0 first-leg lead - even though their second goal came with the very last touch of the match, a brilliant free kick from Wilson Pittoni - and their dreams of a fourth Copa in their seventh final were very much alive as they arrived in Belo Horizonte.

Olimpia's plan in the second leg was similar to that of the semifinal second leg away to Independiente Santa Fe; attack early on, knowing that a third goal would severely complicate things for Atlético (although it wouldn't be an away goal; away goals aren't used in the final). They didn't go gung-ho, but a direct, counterattacking strategy caused a lacklustre Atlético real problems during the first half. Olimpia had fewer chances before the break, but theirs were the better ones - both sides had two shots on target in the first half; while Atlético's were both from outside the box, Olimpia's were both inside it.

In the second half, everything changed. Atlético manager Cuca sent Rosinei on for Pierre and the response was instant; inside a minute, Jô had put them 1-0 up on the night, cutting Olimpia's aggregate lead to one. That set the tone for the second half, with the former Manchester City man leading the line and Ronaldino and Arsenal target Bernard causing no end of trouble as Atlético piled forward in search of an aggregate equaliser. It came when Leonardo Silva sent a looping header in with four minutes left.

By then, Olimpia had been reduced to 10 men after Julio César Manzur was shown a second yellow, so the visitors struggled through the extra half-hour - yes, as well as not counting away goals in the final, the rules also differ from earlier rounds so that there is extra time, rather than going straight to penalties - with 10 men. By the end, both sides had spurned further chances to win, and Bernard was almost immobile with cramp. At the end of an epic final came a shootout that will go down in the history of belorizontino football.

If all that didn't make Atlético's win seem hard enough, remember that this was the second tie in a row in which they had to resort to penalties, following the shootout elimination of Newell's Old Boys in the semis. Remember, too, that Tijuana's Duvier Riascos had a penalty saved in the second minute of stoppage time of the quarterfinal second leg; had he scored, it would have sent Tijuana, rather than Atlético, into the semis. Instead, Atlético advanced on away goals.

Those Atlético ties constituted three of the seven knockout-stage ties that had to be decided on either away goals or penalties. But their home form has been phenomenal (in all competitions, they hadn't lost in Independência for 53 games before the final), and they were the top scorers of the group stage.

That home record proved crucial. The last time a side lost the first leg of the final and won the Copa was Olimpia's own win in 2002; the last time anyone came back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit was Atlético Nacional in 1989, who funnily enough beat Olimpia. It also emphasises Brazil's dominance of the competition; the last time a country's sides managed four Copa wins in a row was when Independiente of Argentina got four straight between 1972 and '75. To top it all, they managed to beat the "curse" of having finished the group stage with the best record. No Copa-winning side has managed to do it from that position since River Plate in 1996.

The second leg was played at the Mineirão due to CONMEBOL's insistence that venues for the final have a capacity of at least 40,000. This was in spite of Olimpia playing their own home match in the Defensores del Chaco, a stadium that holds only 36,000 (though CONMEBOL, who are based in Paraguay, sent a letter to Atlético insisting it was forty-and-a-bit-thousand) - but happens to be the largest stadium in Paraguay.

One thing Atlético weren't complaining about was the ticket sales that came from playing in a larger stadium. Takings of US$6.24 million, given the announced attendance of 56,557, means a mean average ticket price of about US$110. With the cheapest tickets costing US$45, it's clear that the recent well-publicised complaints about ticket prices in Brazil shouldn't be (and, indeed, aren't) confined just to Rio and São Paulo; this match saw the biggest ever gate receipts for a club match on Brazilian soil.

Afterwards, the continental broadcasters inevitably made a beeline for Ronaldinho, and I'm sure it wasn't just because having grown up in the south of Brazil, relatively close to Argentina and Uruguay, he speaks excellent Spanish. He'd just become only the fourth player ever to win Europe's Champions League, the World Cup and the Copa Libertadores, and was overjoyed. Unfortunately, he was being interviewed by an Argentine, so most of the questions were about his friendship with Lionel Messi.

I'll extend a note of sympathy for Olimpia, not least for their Uruguayan goalkeeper Martin Silva. Silva hadn't been great on crosses, but had - as throughout the tournament - made some brilliant saves to keep his side in the game, not least very late on from a Ronaldinho shot that took a wicked, almost 90-degree deflection just yards in front of him.

The fireworks have died down on a memorable Copa Libertadores, and we have a new champion of South America. And as ever, it's been an awful lot of fun.

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