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May 9, 2006

The all-consuming pursuit

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Of the four big sides in São Paulo, only Corinthians have never won the Copa Libertadores and their pursuit of South America's premier club competition consumes the side.

After winning the Brazilian league title last year for the first time since 1999, the team's fanatical supporters, having seen a new partnership spend £30 million on new players, seriously believed that this year the dream might come true.

Instead, it ended in a nightmare last Thursday when River Plate beat them 3-1 at the Pacaembu stadium to take the tie 6-3 on aggregate and move into the quarter-finals.

The referee abandoned the match with six minutes to go after riot police struggled to hold back thousands of angry Corinthians fans who were threatening to invade the pitch.

That game was one of two remarkable matches in the opening section of the Copa Libertadores knock-out phase that saw three Argentine teams, two Brazilians and one apiece from Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay qualify for the last eight.

Junior galloped off down the wing and evaded one rugby tackle before being barged off the ball in the box and winning a penalty.

The other took place the previous night, when holders Sao Paulo took on city rivals Palmeiras. Sao Paulo drew the first match 1-1 at Palmeiras's Parque Antarctica and were favourites to overcome their lacklustre city rivals and qualify for the next round.

They started well with a goal from Aloisio in the 13th minute but the game looked set to go to penalties when Washington equalised early in the second half. The game however, changed when Sao Paolo defender Leandro was sent off for fouling Edmundo as he bore down on goal.

With just 10 men, Sao Paulo grew in stature and took the tie with an unusual - and highly controversial - second goal. A Palmeiras move broke down when a pass from defender Carlos Gamarra rebounded off the referee into the path off former Parma full-back Junior. He galloped off down the wing and evaded one rugby tackle before being barged off the ball in the box and winning a penalty.

Goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni took the kick and scored once, and then again after the referee ordered the kick to be retaken, to notch his 63rd professional goal. Four Palmeiras players were sent off in the ensuing melee, including two after the final whistle had blown.

Those violent incidents were followed 24 hours later with even uglier scenes at the Pacaembu.

The Corinthians-River clash was already the most hotly awaited tie of the round thanks to the presence of two Argentines with close Brazilian ties. Daniel Passarela, a former Corinthians manager, brought River to his former home to face a Brazilian side whose star player is former Boca Juniors striker Carlos Tevez.

The match promised fireworks and did not disappoint.

Corinthians took a first half lead through Nilmar but they wilted in a second period. An own goal from Coelho meant they were up against it and when defensive errors let in substitute Gonzalo Higuain to score numbers two and three, the home supporters went mad.

Thousands poured down the terraces and broke down the fencing at one end of the ground. Some fans invaded the pitch but courageous police officers held back the throng until reinforcements came in to fire stun bombs and tear gas into the crowd. The match was abandoned with six minutes left.

'Some fans had already got on to the pitch but I don't think they wanted to hurt the Corinthians players,' Passarella said after the match.

'But when they started to pull down the fencing and it looked like they were going to invade the pitch it got more dangerous and the referee decided to call a halt.'

Passarella claimed the win did not establish River as serious contenders for a title but the omens could not be better for the Buenos Aires club.

If that ten-year cycle is anything to go by then River are the team to be feared.

River Plate have won the Libertadores just twice, in 1986 and 1996, and they reached the final in 1966 and 1976. If that ten-year cycle is anything to go by then River are the team to be feared. All the more so considering they have what is on paper at least the easiest tie of the round, against Paraguayan side Libertad.

Libertad reached the quarter-finals after beating Mexican club Tigres UANL on penalties after both sides drew blanks in both legs.

The club has scored freely at home in the Paraguayan league but they have struggled with the step up and have scored just eight times in six Libertadores ties, half of them in the 4-1 win over lowly Ecuadorans Nacional. Libertad finished ahead of River in Group 8 but both side won their home ties against each other and River will be confident of defeating their little-known rival in this higher pressure tie.

The second Argentine team to make the last eight will not be quite as sure of themselves. Estudiantes narrowly edged out Brazilian debutants Goais on away goals by scoring a vital away counter in last Thursday's second leg in Goiania.

Goais, making their first appearance in the competition, topped their first round group but their poor away form - they scored in just one of their four away ties - proved costly. They dominated Thursday's match but Jose Luis Calderon's away goal means it is the winners of the competition in 1968/69/70 who must face holders Sao Paulo in the next round.

The third Argentine team have a lot further to travel.

Velez Sarsfield take on Chivas Guadalajara in what looks like the tie of the round. The match up pits Velez, the highest scoring team in the group stages, against a Mexican side that boasted the best defence. As if that were not enough, the pair were two of only three unbeaten teams in that first round. Velez have scored 17 goals in their last five Libertadores ties, including four in their last round victory over Newell's Old Boys.

The last tie of the round involves Internacional, from Porto Alegre, and Ecuadoran side Liga Deportiva Universitaria. The Quito club beat Colombian side Atletico Nacional home and away in the previous round but Internacional were lucky to squeeze past another Nacional, this one from Uruguay.

Inter won the first leg 2-1 in Montevideo - in spite of ending the match with nine men - but were fortunate to have a more friendly referee in the return leg. Paraguayan ref Carlos Torres chalked-off two seemingly legitimate Uruguayan goals to let the Brazilians through.

First leg ties in all games take place this week but after lobbying from FIFA, who wanted the last official matches to take place before May 15, the second legs are being held over until after the World Cup.

It was a weird decision which upset many players.

'I think it's a nuisance for us all,' said Velez fullback Ariel Broggi. 'Because the squad can change over that time period and several players could come or go. I think it's been very poorly done but they've named the dates and there's nothing we can do about it.'

The final is scheduled to take place in August.


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