Copa Libertadores semi-final preview

(Article first published on Own Goal Podcast 16/09/12)

While the attention of most football fans will be firmly fixed on the Euros over the next month, there is plenty of action still to come in South America’s principal club tournament.  The Copa Libertadores, the equivalent of the Champions League, is reaching crunch time as the semi-final first legs begin next week.  The four remaining teams are among the finest on the continent and everything is geared up for a fascinating showdown.

What sets the Libertadores apart from its European counterpart is its sheer magnitude and unpredictability.  The distances that clubs have to travel – Argentina to Mexico being comparable to London to Mumbai – meaning that home advantage or an away goal have an added importance and the wild fluctuations in altitude, with games being played as high as 3,637 metres in La Paz, creates a further obstacle that clubs must overcome en-route to the final.  The fact that there have been several different winners in recent years also adds to its unique charm.

The first semi is an all-Brazilian affair between giants Santos and Corinthians.  Santos are the reigning Libertadores champions and with the phenomenal talents of Neymar, Ganso & co. they are looking to be the first team to successfully defend their crown since Boca in 2001.  However, they will have to find a way through the meanest defence in the competition, the Brazilian champions Corinthians, who have conceded just two goals in ten games.  

Despite qualifying from their respective groups with relative ease, it has not been plain sailing for either side.  Santos succumbed to the Bolivian altitude both in the group stage against The Strongest and then in the Round of 16 against surprise package Bolivar.  Trailing 2-1 after the first leg, Santos underlined their title credentials with a master class in attack, brushing aside the Bolivians 8-0.  They then faced a well-organised Velez Sarsfield in the quarters, only edging past the Argentines on penalties.  Corinthians will have no doubt observed how Velez stifled Santos’ attacking threat and hope they can replicate that.  Having previously seen off Ecuadorian side Emelec 3-0, Corinthians themselves have already disposed of Brazilian opposition having squeaked past Vasco 1-0 thanks to a Paulinho goal in the 88th minute of the second leg. 

The second semi is another mouth-watering tie between Boca Juniors and Universidad de Chile.  Argentine Apertura champions Boca have coped with the rigours of balancing continental competition with domestic form and the possibility of a historic treble still remains.  They will have to be at their very best to beat the buccaneering Universidad de Chile, who won the Copa Sudamericana in December.  La U are one of the most breath-taking sides to watch in world football with their explosive high-tempo, quick-passing, hard-pressing style which has seen them draw comparisons with Barcelona and Bielsa’s Bilbao.  While Boca are not the same watertight unit that went unbeaten in the Apertura, they will have to draw on their defensive resilience if they are to pick off the swashbuckling Chileans.

There has been plenty of drama on the way to the semi-finals for both sides.  After a Juan Roman Riquelme-inspired victory over Union Espanola, 5-3 on aggregate, Boca came up against group rivals Fluminense in the quarters.  At 1-1 the tie looked to be going to penalties until terrifying slap head Santiago Silva pounced to score an injury time winner and send Boca through.  The Uruguayan had been a source of controversy earlier in the year after his move to Boca was sanctioned despite having already played for two clubs (Velez and Fiorentina) this season.  His contribution has proved to be vital.

La U pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in the tournament after staring at an early exit following a 4-1 loss to Deportivo Quito in the Round of 16. El Chuncho responded with a resounding 6-0 victory with braces from Junior Fernandes and teen sensation Angelo Henriquez.  Their quarter-final also went down to the wire after a 2-2 aggregate draw against Paraguayan outfit Libertad and eventually triumphing 5-3 on penalties.  While they looked unbeatable in 2011, this year’s competition has exposed some of their frailties but they have shown great character and remain big favourites.

For the neutral a Santos versus Universidad de Chile final would be the most desirable outcome, pitting the two current continental champions and purveyors of aesthetically pleasing football against each other.  Nevertheless, Boca and Corinthians will want to add to their domestic successes and both will look to upset the purists’ apple cart with a more pragmatic and defensive approach.

Whether it’s the prodigious Neymar’s Santos, the mercurial Riquelme’s Boca, the collective brilliance of Sampaoli’s La U or the impenetrable Corinthians who are crowned champion, there should be plenty of drama, excitement and fine football along the way for all those who are not merely satisfied with the small matter of whatever is going on in Poland and Ukraine this summer.