The preliminary round and early group games have already provided some shocks in this year’s Libertadores Cup.
By Brian Homewood
Penarol went into this year’s Libertadores Cup with hopes of reliving some of their finer moments from the past but instead were given a cruel reminder of the present.
Five-times Libertadores winners Penarol’s fall from grace has been even more dramatic than that of Uruguayan football itself.
In the last 10 years, Penarol have made the quarter-finals only once, in 2002, and the last sixteen on one other occasion in 2000. They have been eliminated three times in the group stage, once in the preliminary round and did not qualify at all in 2006, 2007 or 2008.
This time around, Penarol qualified for the preliminary round and re-appointed coach Julio Ribas – a man who describes his players as gladiators and was once jailed for eight days for his part in a brawl on the field – to try and inspire the team.
But their dreams were shattered in less than 35 minutes as they fell 3-0 behind away to Colombia’s Independiente Medellin in their first leg. Medellin went on to win 4-0, helped by a hat-trick from Jackson Martinez, and held on for a goalless draw in the return to reach the group stage.
Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s Palmeiras joined them with a comfortable 7-1 aggregate win over Bolivia’s Real Potosi, whose Mario Mercado stadium is one of the world’s highest first division grouds at over 13,000 feet above sea level.
To complicate things, Potosi does not have a commercial airport, so visiting teams have to fly to nearby Sucre and then drive for three hours over twisting mountain roads to reach the mining town.
To save time, Palmeiras decided to hire a convoy of 10 four-wheel drive vehicles, rather than the usual bus, to transport the team.
Having survived that adventure, Palmeiras began the group stage by losing 3-2 away to defending champions LDU in Group One.
There was an early dose of controversy in Group Three as River Plate beat Paraguay’s Nacional with an injury-time goal scored from an offside position and with the help of a handball.
Crisitan Fabbiani used his arm to control the ball and, although his shot was saved by Ignacio Don, Diego Buonanotte, clearly offside, turned in the rebound. Nacional launched an official protest but one week later were soundly beaten 3-0 at home by their Uruguayan namesakes.
Uruguay’s Nacional had to rush to an Asuncion sports shop two hours before kick off to buy an improvised set of shirts after their kit went missing.
Nolberto Solano made an inspirational debut as he masterminded Universitario’s 1-0 win over San Lorenzo in Lima in Group Eight, capping his performance by scoring the winner from a penalty.