There is just something about Hugo Ever Almeida and the Copa Libertadores. As a goalkeeper for Olimpia he was a three-time finalist and two-time winner; he holds the record for the highest number of appearances in the competition’s history; and he is now a step closer to making his mark on the tournament as a coach after leading Olimpia to the final four with a 2-1 victory at home to Fluminense on Wednesday.
The Paraguayan side have a strong history in the competition, having reached the final on six occasions and lifted the trophy three times – with Almeida between the sticks in 1979 and 1990 and without him in 2002. They were Paraguay’s entrant in the inaugural Copa Libertadores, reaching the final, and have appeared in the semi-finals on a five further unsuccessful occasions.
Santa Fe of Colombia will be their opponents in the final four of this year’s competition and Olimpia will go into the tie confident in the knowledge that they have an excellent record against Colombian teams at the business end of the tournament. They defeated Millonarios 5-1 on aggregate in the 1960 semi-final and then beat Atletico Nacional in the semi-finals of 1990 and 1991.
The manner in which they have progressed to the last four will also breed confidence. Olimpia were the joint highest scoring team in the competition during the group stage, topping a group featuring fellow semi-finalists Newell’s Old Boys and the highly-rated Universidad de Chile. In the knockout stages they have dispatched Tigre of Argentina and now, following victory in Asuncion on Wednesday, reigning Brazilian champions Fluminense.
Almeida, who as a coach has won league titles in Paraguay, Guatemala and Ecuador, has shown a good tactical eye since his return to Olimpia at the start of the year, regularly making little in-game adjustments that have helped his side to victory. On Wednesday he reacted swiftly to Fluminense’s early goal, bringing on striker Juan Ferreyra and giving his side the additional attacking impetus necessary to overturn their deficit and go into the break 2-1 up.
If goalkeeper Martin Silva was the saviour a week earlier in Rio, producing a string of excellent saves to prevent Fluminense converting their dominance into goals, it was forward Juan Manuel Salgueiro who made the difference on Wednesday. Salgueiro has a tendency to blow hot and cold, but has produced some excellent performances in this year’s Copa Libertadores and scored both goals in Asuncion: the first a whipped in free-kick from the left and the second a cool finish from the penalty spot after Fredy Bareiro had been brought down inside the area.
Olimpia resisted Fluminense’s attempts to find a way back into the tie and celebrated wildly as the final whistle blew in the Defensores del Chaco stadium. Almeida initially held back, content to let his players enjoy a moment that he himself had experienced a number of times before, but by the time he appeared in the mixed zone for the post-match interviews the subsequent celebrations had reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper.
The 64-year-old appears to have fostered an excellent team spirit, with Salgueiro and defender Richard Salinas both describing the current Olimpia squad as “a very nice group”, in their own post-match interviews. There is a togetherness and collective purpose that has seen them overcome any hurdles they have encountered in the competition to date and which will stand them in good stead for the challenges to come.
Olimpia certainly have history on their side as they are the only previous winners left in the competition. Newell’s were losing finalists in 1988 and 1992; Santa Fe are yet to better the semi-final appearance they achieved on their debut in 1961; while Atletico Mineiro’s previous best performance was in being one of six teams to reach the semi-final group stage of 1978.
The Copa Libertadores now breaks for a month as World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup take over its usual place in the calendar. When it resumes in early July, Olimpia will consider themselves well placed to at least reach a seventh final and perhaps add a fourth Copa Libertadores trophy to their cabinet. “They say the club wins it every 11 or 12 years”, Almeida commented after Wednesday’s match. “And here we are."
Goal of the Week
Jefferson Cuero (25) – Santa Fe vs Real Garcilaso
An unbelievable strike from 40 or so yards out, hit with power and swerve, that angled in off the underside of the crossbar.
Player of the Week
Victor (30) – Atletico Mineiro
Atletico struggled to overcome a well organised, tough Tijuana side over the two legs of their quarter-final and looked to be on the verge of elimination when the Mexicans were awarded a penalty in second half stoppage time on Thursday. But Victor came to the rescue, sticking out a foot to divert Duvier Riascos’ centrally aimed penalty to safety and secure his side passage to the final four by virtue of the away goals rule.
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