Estudiantes of Argentina and Cruzeiro of Brazil will face each other in this year’s Libertatdores Cup Final.
By Tim Vickery in Buenos Aires
The Final of the 50th Libertadores Cup will be between two sides in good form. Both Estudiantes of Argentina and Cruzeiro of Brazil go into the decider after having passed through the knock out rounds unbeaten – each had earlier inflicted a heavy defeat on the other when they were drawn together in the group phase.
Just as they done in the quarter finals, Estudiantes overcame Uruguayan opposition in the semis with victories home and away. This time the victims were Nacional, whose best Libertadores performance for 21 years was based on a talented group of youngsters. With the outstanding, attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, starting to tire, Nacional were comprehensively outplayed in the first half of the first leg in La Plata.
A quickly taken free-kick from Juan Sebastian Veron opened them up, Leandro Benitez crossed from the right with his favoured left foot and Diego Galvan ran in from the other wing to score with a diving header. Veron limped off at the interval, and the quality of Estudiantes’ play went with him. Nacional could do no better, and 1-0 was the final score.
Veron was still missing from the second leg, and with Lodeiro left on the bench, the first half of the return match in Montevideo was a non event, for all the passion of Nacional’s fans in the Centenario stadium.
Lodeiro was introduced at half time and was beginning to generate ideas when disaster struck. Another of Nacional’s youngsters, big centre back Sebastian Coates, had improved the side’s aerial defending. But he was caught in possession by Gaston Fernandez, who slipped Mauro Boselli through to score.
It left Nacional needing three. They got one – Lodeiro’s chip chested down and volleyed in by Alexander Medina. It was the first goal Estudiantes had conceded in the competition for an extraordinary 800 minutes – all since Alejandro Sabella took over as coach for the fourth game of the campaign. Sabella’s men were already home and dry before they managed an injury time goal, their Uruguayan substitute Juan Manuel Salgueiro squaring for Boselli to round off the counter-attack with his seventh goal in the competition.
Estudiantes, then, are through to their first final in 38 years and chasing their fourth title, while Cruzeiro are aiming for their third after, in a repeat of their quarter final, comfortably seeing off fellow Brazilian opposition.
Gremio had statistically been the best team in the field in the group stage, but were showing signs of losing their momentum in the quarter finals, when they eliminated Caracas of Venezuela on away goals after two draws. Perhaps incoming coach Paulo Autori’s switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 was not assimilated quickly enough.
Even at their best Gremio had suffered from poor finishing, and in the away leg in Belo Horizonte they wasted three chances to take the lead. They were punished when Cruzeiro hit their stride either side of half time. The excellent Kleber crossed for Wellington Paulista to get in front of the defence and head home. Then Wagner cut in after a short corner, and as the defence stayed too deep his shot took a deflection past the keeper. And after another short corner Fabinho was allowed a free header for the third.
Souza replied for Gremio with a superb free kick – a goal that left the second leg in Porto Alegre wonderfully poised.
Gremio tried to cut the deficit with an aerial bombardment, and were beginning to apply pressure when the tie was taken away from them by two goals in two minutes shortly before half time. Both were scored by striker Wellington Paulista. The first was once again set up by Kleber, turning the defence on the right, running to the bye-line and pulling back for a close range stab in. The other, catching out the offside trap, was a diving header from right back Jonathan’s chipped cross.
Gremio were left needing five goals in 45 minutes, a task that became harder still when midfielder Adilson was sent off. Pride forced them forwards. Gangling defender Rever glanced in one from a corner, and midfielder Souza curled home one of his long range specials. But though Cruzeiro were unable to hold on for their seventh consecutive win, they were never in danger of missing out on the Final of the 50th Libertadores Cup.