Barcelona make the last four

Ecuado­rian side end San­tos’ dream

World Soccer - - World Service - TIM VICK­ERY

The newly ex­tended, year-long Lib­er­ta­dores Cup opened up more space for teams from Brazil and Ar­gentina, and – purely by co­in­ci­dence of course – the 2017 com­pe­ti­tion ended up plac­ing the last three rep­re­sen­ta­tives of each in sep­a­rate halves of the knock­out draw.

One half con­tained three Ar­gen­tinian sides plus Jorge Wil­ster­mann of Bo­livia, while the other had three Brazil­ians and Barcelona of Ecuador – and the story of the two quar­ter-fi­nal out­siders ended very dif­fer­ently.

Wil­ster­mann were this year’s big sur­prise and had pro­gressed by fol­low­ing a set pat­tern: win­ning their home games, where the al­ti­tude of Cochabamba, though not ex­treme, gives them an ad­van­tage, and then de­fend­ing doggedly in their away ties.

The first part of that script worked to per­fec­tion against a River Plate side that had pre­vi­ously won all of their away fix­tures. With sev­eral key play­ers sold, the vis­i­tors lacked co­he­sion and were soundly beaten 3-0 in Bo­livia. Wil­ster­mann hit them quickly, with early pres­sure forc­ing a goal from a corner, and then sat back, break­ing when it suited them.

In the pre­vi­ous round the Bo­li­vians had suc­cess­fully de­fended a sin­gle­goal lead against Brazil’s Atletico Mineiro, so surely three goals would be enough this time?

The an­swer, em­phat­i­cally, was no. It was not even close.

River coach Marcelo Gal­lardo clev­erly switched to a bold 3-4-2-1 set-up, and cen­tre-for­ward Ig­nacio Scocco, who had been waste­ful in the first leg, could now do no wrong. He scored a hat-trick in the first 20 min­utes as River went on to win 8-0, with Scocco get­ting five, newly ac­quired mid­fielder Enzo Perez scor­ing twice and the ex­cel­lent Ig­nacio Fer­nan­dez grab­bing the other.

In the semi-fi­nals, River now meet

Lanus, who beat San Lorenzo on penal­ties.

Twice in the group phase San Lorenzo had been min­utes, or even sec­onds, away from elim­i­na­tion, and then they needed a shoot-out to get past Em­elec of Ecuador. As a re­sult, some thought that per­haps their name was on the tro­phy. And it seemed like that in the first leg against Lanus, where they won 2-0 with the aid of a for­tu­nate penalty.

But, like Wil­ster­mann, San Lorenzo saw their lead evap­o­rate quickly in the re­turn as Jorge Alm­iron’s side hit their stride to level on ag­gre­gate. Both sides hit the wood­work but while the ac­tion re­mained in­tense the chances dwin­dled all the way to the fi­nal whis­tle and the shoot-out, where Lanus keeper Este­ban An­drada ex­celled, send­ing his team through to their first Lib­er­ta­dores semi-fi­nal.

But there will be no all-Brazil­ian show­down in the other semi – Barcelona made sure of that.

The club from Guayaquil have made a habit of achiev­ing ex­cel­lent re­sults on Brazil­ian soil this year and they did so once more, end­ing the un­beaten home record of San­tos.

Af­ter a 1-1 draw at home, Barcelona de­fended stoutly in the re­turn, with keeper Max­imo Banguero in fine form, and cen­tre-backs Dario Ai­mar and Xavier Ar­reaga show­ing grit and class. Ma­tias Oy­ola dis­trib­utes well from mid­field, they have a va­ri­ety of quick play­ers down the flanks, and Uruguayan livewire Jonathan Alvez is a dan­ger­ous cen­tre-for­ward.

Their style is prob­a­bly best suited to away games, and so it proved against San­tos, who badly missed the cre­ativ­ity of mid­fielder Lu­cas Lima in the sec­ond leg. Over anx­ious, San­tos were al­ways sec­ond best and Barcelona won when Alvez headed home Erick Castillo’s cross. San­tos sup­port­ers ri­oted af­ter­wards,

en­raged that their quest to be­come the first Brazil­ian club with four ti­tles had been in­ter­rupted.

Barcelona go on to face more Brazil­ian op­po­si­tion, al­though in the first leg they will miss Alvez and Brazil­ian de­fen­sive mid­fielder Gabriel Mar­ques, both of whom were sent off against San­tos.

Their op­po­nents, Gremio, came through two tight games against com­pa­tri­ots Botafogo, who en­joyed a fine cam­paign un­der im­pres­sive coach Jair Ven­tura. It was a clash of styles, with prag­matic and di­rect Botafogo op­er­at­ing hap­pily within their lim­i­ta­tions, against an eye-pleas­ing pos­ses­sion based Gremio.

In a goal­less draw in Rio, Gremio mid­fielder Arthur, rem­i­nis­cent of a young Andres Ini­esta, took the wind out of Botafogo’s sails. In front of their own fans in Porto Ale­gre, Gremio started badly but found more flu­ency af­ter the break and were re­warded with the only goal of the 180 min­utes when Paraguayan cen­tre-for­ward Lu­cas Bar­rios headed in a free-kick at the far post.

Gremio ended ner­vously, a shadow of the side that were so en­chant­ing in June and July. How­ever, coach Re­nato Por­taluppi will rel­ish hav­ing over a month un­til the semi-fi­nals to whip his team back in shape.

Barcelona have made a habit of achiev­ing ex­cel­lent re­sults on Brazil­ian soil this year

Im­pres­sive... Ma­tias Oy­ola of Barcelona

On fire...River’s Ig­nacio Scocco gets the first of his five goals

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