Team of the Libertadores 2012

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 10/07/12 AND on the Guardian’s ‘Our favourite things of the week’)

Corinthians capped off a fantastic footballing year with their first ever Copa Libertadores title, adding to their fifth Brasileirão triumph six months ago.  They defeated Boca Juniors 2-0 in the Estadio Pacaembu with a brace from Emerson Sheik, winning the tie 3-1 on aggregate having drawn the first leg 1-1 in Buenos Aires the week before.  A fantastic achievement considering that back in 2008 they were plying their trade in the Serie B!

Timão’s success was rooted in a tireless work ethic and a solid defence that conceded just 4 goals in 14 games and notched ten clean sheets, seeing them go unbeaten in the entire competition.  While not always the prettiest side to watch in their striker-less formation (when did that ever work?!), to label them as merely defensive would be to detract from a victory based on collective dominance.  Great credit must go to coach Tite for not being afraid to drop big names and creating a great team spirit and also to the board for sticking by their man after the disappointment of previous continental campaigns.  Simply put, over the course of the tournament the best team won.

Beaten finalists Boca had a fantastic campaign and came very close to a record-equalling seventh title but Corinthians ultimately proved too strong over two legs.  The game was almost overshadowed by the shock post-match announcement that Boca’s talismanic captain Juan Roman Riquelme is set to leave his boyhood club.  An emotional Riquelme said “I love this club, I’ll be eternally grateful, but I feel empty, I have nothing more to give”.  Evidently, Riquelme ya no está feliz.  Whether or not he retires or reneges on his statement remains to be seen but whatever his decision, it will be have a major effect on the future direction of the club.

Last year’s champions Santos and Copa Sudamericana victors Universidad de Chile served up some of the most entertaining and attractive football but both sides crashed out at the semis.  While Santos couldn’t find a way through Corinthians’ stoic defence, La U looked to have run out of steam by the time they played Boca in the semis – not surprising considering it was their 98th since January 2011.  Other notable moments came from the exciting but unpredictable Colombian side Atlético Nacional, Flamengo’s dramatic early exit and Bolívar being the first Bolivian side to reach the knock-out stage for 12 years

So which players lit up this year’s edition of the Libertadores?  Lining up in a 4-2-1-3 formation, here is my Team of the Tournament.

GK: Cassio (Corinthians)
Although Cassio only played after the group stage – Tite having lost faith with Julio Cesar due to some dodgy Paulista state championship performances – he conceded just 2 goals in 8 games and was near faultless throughout.  In particular his fine form to keep Santos strike force at bay in the semis was a stand-out performance.

DR: Matías Rodríguez (Universidad de Chile)
The attacking full-back was one of La U’s most impressive players, scoring 4 goals.  Consistently stellar performances lead to a richly deserved call-up to the Argentine national team and has reportedly made him a target for Manchester City.

DL: Clemente Rodríguez (Boca Juniors)
Another forward thinking full back, Clemente tireless surges gave Boca so much width in attack and linked very well with Riquelme, for example his involvement in the opening goal against Unión Española. Like namesake Matías, he also earned himself a spot in the Argentine national squad due to a fine Libertadores campaign.

DC: Leandro Castán (Corinthians)
An imperious, physical centre back and ever present in the watertight Corinthians backline that conceded only four goals in the entire tournament.  His colossal displays have led to a €5.5mil move to Roma this summer.

DC: Sebastián Domínguez (Vélez)
Played every game for a defensively solid Vélez side that conceded just five times in 10 games.  Especially against the attacking prowess of Atlético Nacional and Santos, he helped nullify and stifle the opposition forwards.  Also scored a beautiful free-kick in the opener against Defensor Sporting.

MC: Marcelo Díaz (Universidad de Chile)
Metronome that kept La U ticking, Díaz dictated play in a similar fashion to Xavi for Barcelona and Spain. While his stats only read as two assists and two goals, this masks his vital influence on the team.  He is moving to Basel this summer and will be a big loss to La U.

MC: Paulinho (Corinthians)
The real engine of the Corinthians team, the all-action 23-year-old midfielder scored 3 goals and made 4 assists.  While fellow midfield double pivot Ralf took on much of the defensive responsibilities, Paulinho was key to the smooth transition from defence to attack and was not afraid to burst forward.  His late goal against Vasco in the quarter final proved decisive and he is attracting interest from some of the biggest clubs in Europe.

AMC: Juan Roman Riquelme (Boca Juniors)
We were treated to numerous masterful displays by the Argentine playmaker in what could be his swansong for Boca.  ‘El Ultimo Diez’ has been at his mercurial best with three goals and three assists to his name and so very nearly guided his beloved Boca to continental glory.  The captain lead by example and was in particularly inspired form during the last-16 games against Unión Española – scoring a golazo in the first and instrumental in all three goals in the second leg.  His performance in the first semi-final versus La U underlined the pertinence of the classic No. 10 as he completely controlled the game and unlocked the Chilean defence for Boca’s vital second.  Hopefully it won’t be the last we see of him.

FW/AML: Neymar (Santos)
The Brazilian sensation continues to impress and once again showed why he is one of the most exciting players in the world.  A tally of 7 goals and 5 assists shows that he is developing not only into a lethal marksman but a provider too.  Admittedly, he wasn’t at his best when the Velez and Corinthians pressed him tightly but still made vital contributions even when chances were few a far between.  His hat-trick against Internacional and performance in the 8-0 humbling of Bolívar were sensational.

FW/AMR: Fidel Martínez (Deportivo Quito)
Despite being mainly employed on the left, Neymar’s presence means he has to make do on the opposite flank as an inverted winger in a very fluid front three here.  Very skilful and boasting electric pace the ‘Ecuadorian Neymar’ made quite an impression with three assists and three goals, almost upsetting La U along the way.  Has now moved to Tijuana in Mexico.

SC: Dorlan Pabón (Atlético Nacional)
One of the revelations of the tournament and, although the Colombians only made it to the last-16 despite a promising start, Pabón still managed 7 goals and one assist. An explosive, strong and rapid striker Pabn terrorized defences and even struck a 40 yard bullet free-kick. Parma have acquired his services for around 4million euros – an absolute bargain.

Rafael – The young Santos stopper continues to show why he is so highly regarded.
Eugenio Mena – The attacking left full back forages provided 4 assists and a goal for La U.
DaniloVery close to the starting XI, the Corinthians playmaker was in fine form with 4 goals and 3 assists, including a brilliant backheel for Emerson’s first in the final
Oscar – Internacional 20-year-old midfielder provided 5 assists despite only reaching the last-16 and looks to be on his way to the Premiership.
Matías AlustizaTop scorer in the tournament for the Deportivo Quito striker with 8 goals.
Ángelo Henríquez – Young Chilean striker justified the hype with 4 goals.  Mature performances from the 18-year-old.
Emerson Sheik – Came up with some vital goals and was hardworking throughout.