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Inside FutbolInside Futbol

Copa Libertadores

Copa Libertadores Report: Atletico Entertain But Must Mind Defensive Gap

Atletico Mineiro are clearly not a defensive side. Despite entering the second leg of their Copa Libertadores last sixteen tie at home to Sao Paulo on Wednesday evening with a 2-1 advantage and two away goals to their name, they still attacked from the outset. Jo fired well wide from the edge of the area following a swift attack straight from kick-off and then Ronaldinho struck the crossbar with a lofted free-kick little more than a minute later.

At that point 28% of the club’s goals in the competition had been scored within the opening 15 minutes of matches, but if Sao Paulo thought seeing out the first quarter hour would see them safe they were badly mistaken, as the breakthrough came shortly thereafter. Full-back Marcos Rocha played a crisp pass into the feet of Bernard and when he was tackled the ball fell to Jo, who struck a powerful yet precise effort into the corner of the net.

More goals could have followed in a first half dominated by the home team. Without the injured Osvaldo, Sao Paulo desperately lacked pace and movement in the final third. Jadson, Paulo Henrique Ganso and Douglas simply formed a line of three, static playmakers, with no outlet to make use of their passing ability. As a team they were easily overrun, and went into the interval with a revival seeming highly unlikely.

The half-time introduction of new signing Silvinho added a bit more mobility to the Sao Paulo attack and did briefly see them threaten early in the second half, but Atletico Mineiro regained control thereafter and killed off the tie in an intense six-minute spell that saw them add a further three goals to the scoresheet – Jo completing his hat-trick and Diego Tardelli getting the other. 

Sao Paulo scored a late consolation, but Galo were clear, deserved victors, on the night and on aggregate.

With Jo a tall, mobile presence up front, Ronaldinho providing invention with his panoply of flicks and tricks, and Bernard and Diego Tardelli buzzing around them, Atletico Mineiro are a fearsome attacking force in full flight. Having topped the group stage scoring charts with 16 goals in six matches, a further six were added to their total over the two legs of their first knockout round tie.

90.91% of their 22 goals to date have been scored from inside the penalty area, but otherwise there has been great variety in the method of the club’s goals. A standard pass has been the most popular form of assist so far, accounting for 31.82% of their goals, but 27.27% have come from crosses, 18.18% from taking advantage of loose balls (rebounds, half clearances, etc), 9.09% each from through balls and penalties and 4.55% (one goal) from set-pieces.

With pace and creativity in abundance, Atletico Mineiro have thus far proven themselves to be the most entertaining side in this year’s competition. But fortune doesn’t always favour the brave in the Copa Libertadores, as Galo coach Cuca knows from past experience. In 2011, his Cruzeiro side finished the group stage as the highest scorers with an impressive 20-goal haul, but then fell 3-2 on aggregate to Colombia’s Once Caldas in the last sixteen.

In the last ten years, LDU Quito (2008) are the only team to have won the Copa Libertadores with a goals conceded per match average worse than one per match. They are also one of only two teams, along with Internacional (2010), to have won the competition while conceding over a goal per match in the knockout stages. Corinthians (2012) and Estudiantes (2009) each conceded just two goals during the eight knockout matches of their respective successful campaigns.

Atletico Mineiro have conceded eleven goals in eight matches to date, comfortably over one per match, and are yet to keep a clean sheet. More worryingly, they have displayed a propensity to get sloppy and concede in the final 15 minutes of each half. 72.72% of their goals conceded to date have fallen within those timeframes; 45.45% in the final 15 minutes of matches.

Cuca has already shown a willingness to alter his tactical approach to bring a little more defensive stability when required. In the recent Campeonato Mineiro match against Cruzeiro he switched from his usual 4-2-3-1 formation at half-time, employing former Arsenal player Gilberto Silva as a shield in front of the back four. Cruzeiro still got the match winner during the second half, but it at least shows that Cuca recognises the issue.

Next up for Atletico Mineiro will be compatriots Palmeiras or the Mexican side Tijuana, who have thus far proven themselves to be just the sort of obdurate defensive team that can so often be the undoing of an exciting attacking force such as Galo. For entertainment purposes it would be brilliant to see Cuca’s side continue with their current approach, but the truth is that a greater degree of defensive balance is likely to be required if they are to win a first ever Copa Libertadores trophy.

Goal of the Week

Jo (26) – Atletico Mineiro vs Sao Paulo

A precise, powerfully struck effort from just outside the area that opened his account for the evening and sent Atletico Mineiro on their way to the last eight.

Player of the Week

Jo (26) – Atletico Mineiro

Jo completes a clean sweep of this week’s awards after scoring a superb hat-trick and putting in a strong all round performance, providing a threat in the air and on the ground. The lanky striker’s career stalled following his extremely disappointing spell in England with Manchester City (and on loan at Everton), but he has been revitalised since moving to Galo, and moved to the top of the Copa Libertadores scoring charts with his triple on Wednesday.

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