Barcelona make the last four
Ecuadorian side end Santos’ dream
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