Thursday, July 21, 2016

All tied up after first leg of Copa Libertadores final

For the first time since 1991, no team from Argentina or Brazil made it to the final of the Copa Libertadores. Instead, surprise team Independiente del Valle from Ecuador hosted Colombia's Atlético Nacional, who had marched through the competition with impressive performances thus far. 

The atmosphere before the game in Ecuador (Photo: tdn_twit on Twitter).
The night was started off by the usual atmospheric highlights in Quito. Independiente moved to the national stadium for this big game, considering their small home ground. Fireworks were shooting into the sky, while more fans had their lighters and phones out to bring some goosebumps across the TV screens at home. A large Ecuadorian flag was rolled out across the far side stand, presenting the colours of a country that had been hit by a huge natural disaster only months ago. 

A true Cinderella story is exactly what Independiente del Valle is all about. Back when their semifinal opponent Boca Juniors last won the Copa Libertadores in 2007, they were still playing third division football in their home country. Slowly but surely, they moved their way up and show that often you just need a good strategy and smart minds to be successful, especially on a continent like South America, which is still more even than Europe's crazy football world. 

Atlético Nacional on the other hand won the competition before, all the way back in 1989. With players such as René Hiquita or Andrés Escobar, the Colombians beat Paraguay's Club Olimpia on penalties after nullifying a 0-2 decifit from the first away leg. Currently, you can pretty surely call them the best team in South America. They dominated throughout the group stages without conceding a single goal and were seeded #1 for the knockout rounds. After beating Huracán, Rosario Central and Sao Paulo FC, they found themselves in the final deservedly. 

In typical South American chaos fashion, the Ecuadorian football association asked Independiente to play a league game which had previously been called off on Wednesday morning, the same day of the Copa Libertadores final. The laughable decision was reacted to with a youth team that lost 2-5 to El Nacional. Tonight's opponents also mainly played their reserves in the last league outing at home against Deportes Tolima, drawing 2-2.

The actual game

With the start of the final itself, we received a little rain from above, leaving the players all options to play good football though. The first better opportunity came within the first five minutes for the Ecuadorian home team when the Angulo's broke through Atlético's defense for the first time. Julio found José with a decent pass, but the shot of the striker went just wide. 

A first attempt for the visitors came soon after when striker Miguel Borja, after having scored four times (!) in the semifinal, fired from a far distance and saw his shot saved comfortably by opposing goalkeeper Librado Azcona. 

While 3000 visiting fans produced a nice setting along with the strong home support, the game itself turned into a midfield battle relatively quickly. Even though Atlético Nacional had most of the ball, they could not find a way through a well-organized defensive line of Independiente. The teams neutralized themselves, which is clearly nothing for the neutral viewer. 

20 minutes in, the biggest chance of the game so far for the hosts: A freekick from the right was deflected onwards by a Colombian defender and hit the head of surprised Arturo Mina. He could not direct it any further, which saw the ball fly right into the open arms of Franco Armani. Shortly after, Mina convinced on the other side of the pitch as well, when stopping the ever dangerous Borja with an excellent tackle. 

Orlando Berrio scored the opener (second from left, Photo:
Atlético's #10 MacNelly Torres started to gain a little too much space in midfield for his passes. After 36 minutes, the 31-year old made it count. He found Orlando Berrio on the edge of the area. The striker went some more metres, keeping the upper hand against the defense's desperate clearing attempts before finishing strongly into the bottom right corner. An absolute beauty to make it 0-1 on the night and leave the visiting fans in ecstasy. 

While the lead was not really deserved by any clear means, it gave Atlético the necessary calmness in their decision making and they had the match under control a bit more comfortably now. Top talent Marlos Moreno nearly made it 2-0 before halftime, but his shot that caught Azcona way outside his goal just flew over the bar. 

Second half

Independiente del Valle now had their work cut out for them in the second half, having to attack while also not being too open at the back. Half chances for Bryan Cabezas and Junior Sornoza was all the Ecuadorians could manage before the hour mark. In fairness, Atlético Nacional defended really well now and stopped their opponents from being dangerous at all. 

As time continued to pass and Independiente kept being chanceless, coach Pablo Repetto had to react. He brought on Jonny Uchuari and Jonathan Gonzalez for Cabezas and Julio Angulo. Both of them had been extremely quiet on the night, compared to their previous performances in the competition. 

A game that kept getting worse and worse was about to be over in ten minutes after an extremely poor second half which was not final worthy. Noone really expected anything to happen anymore and they were wrong. The home team actually managed to strike back and make it a game again after 87 minutes. A long freekick near the centre circle by Junior Sornoza went high all the way into the area. Armani, expecting a striker to get a touch of the ball still, could only let the ball bounce forward as it hit him. Arturo Mina tried to score once and was denied by Armani, but on the second attempt the goalkeeper had no chance to keep the centre-back out anymore. 

A late equalizer gives Independiente del Valle a large moral boost and every chance in the second leg. However, Atlético Nacional will not be too unhappy with the result either, as it sees them move back home requiring a win or a 0-0 draw. They surely have the potential to seal it at home.

Video highlights


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