In July of 2012, Uruguayan striker Ivan Alonso announced his intention to leave the Mexican club Toluca after a cardiologist recommended he should not play regularly at altitude. On Tuesday, seven months later, he was back the city, breaking the hearts of the Toluca faithful by scoring the winner in a 3-2 victory for his new side Nacional on the second matchday of the Copa Libertadores group stage.
The Estadio Nemesio Diez crowd had looked on in horror as the ball was nudged wide to Alonso to the right of the penalty area just before the hour mark, already anticipating the cool, precise finish into the opposite corner of the net that followed. It was a finish they had seen time and time again during his year-long spell at the club, in which he scored 25 goals in 34 appearances.
Indeed, his announcement last summer caused considerable concern, such was the extent to which the club relied on his goalscoring ability. Toluca did, however, adapt admirably to Alonso’s departure, increasing their goal output from midfield, and actually finished top of the table in the regular season of the Mexican Apertura in the second half of 2012.
They had no answer to their former star on Tuesday, though, as Alonso followed up his injury time equaliser against the Ecuadorian side Barcelona the previous week with a goal that secured Nacional an unexpected three points and relieved some of the pressure building on coach Gustavo Diaz.
Press reports prior to the match had suggested that Diaz would be out on his ear if Nacional suffered a heavy defeat in Mexico. His first half-year at the club encompassed an early elimination from the Copa Sudamericana and a poor campaign in the Apertura championship, won by arch rivals Penarol. When a new club president was voted into office at the end of 2012 it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before Diaz received his marching orders.
But the new president, Eduardo Ache, immediately threw his support behind Diaz, and after an impressive victory at the 2,700 metre altitude of Toluca, the young coach – who did an excellent, albeit brief, job at Defensor Sporting – has surely earned himself enough credit to at least oversee the remainder of the club’s Libertadores campaign.
While Diaz’s coaching career is still in its nascency, the careers of a number of his playing staff are beginning to draw to a close. It has, however, been this old guard who have provided the team’s primary attacking threat in their two matches to date.
Incredibly, all five of Nacional’s goals have been scored by players aged 33 or over. Alonso, is 33, as is fellow two-time scorer Vicente Sanchez. 36-year old Sebastian Abreu came off the bench to reduce to the deficit to one in the draw with Barcelona, while the cross for Alonso’s equaliser in that match came courtesy of Alvaro Recoba, also 36.
Recoba was in fine form in the second half of 2012, scoring four times, including twice direct from corners, providing five assists, and being indirectly involved in numerous other goals. Nacional only lost one of the 11 matches he participated in, yet lost two of four in which he did not.
He is fuller faced and less agile than in his pomp – and his regular starting place has now been taken by the returning Juan Albin – but the quality of his delivery, from both open play and set-pieces, is still capable of unlocking even the most resolute of defences. “He is a special player”, Diaz commented in September last year. “He is decisive and can produce spectacular plays.”
Whether a squad featuring a considerable number of veterans can last the pace when the fixtures start building up – Nacional’s domestic campaign begins this coming weekend, at home to Defensor Sporting - is open to conjecture, but there are certainly signs that some of the younger players can fill in and compensate if old legs tire.
Former Getafe forward Albin, on loan from Espanyol, assisted Alonso’s winner against Toluca and should be able to shoulder the primary creative responsibility once he obtains full match fitness. Young wingers Adrian Luna, Carlos De Pena and Gonzalo Bueno have also shown a good deal of promise.
Nacional’s next Libertadores match is not until the seventh of March, when they face Boca Juniors in La Bombonera. Tuesday’s win was their 23rd away from home in continental competition over the last sixteen years. Number 24 would put Diaz’s venerable brigade in a very strong position to qualify.
Goal of the Week
Jorge Gonzalez (24) – Libertad (Paraguay) vs Tigre (Arg)
A truly special strike from the Libertad midfielder, whose vicious, dipping free-kick from 35 yards seemed to gain pace as it flew over the head of Tigre goalkeeper Javier Garcia and into the back of the net.
Player of the Week
Angelo Pena (23) – Caracas (Venezuela)
There is something about playing in Chile that suits Caracas: their surprising 3-1 win away to Huachipato on Wednesday was their third in the country over the last couple of years, following previous victories over Union Espanola and Universidad Catolica. Attacking midfielder Pena was their main man, playing the ball over the top from which Dani Cure opened the scoring, and finding the back of the net twice himself, including a superbly struck effort from the edge of the area that arrowed over the goalkeeper into the roof of the net.
We at Inside Futbol extend our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of 14-year San Jose supporter Kevin Beltran, who died instantly after being struck by a flare reportedly thrown by supporters of the Brazilian side Corinthians on Wednesday evening. A criminal investigation has been opened to identify the supporter(s) responsible, while South America’s governing body, CONMEBOL, will also be investigating the incident.
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