At the age of 17, Alejandro Silva returned to his hometown with his tail between his legs having failed in his attempt to become a professional footballer. But on Tuesday, at the age of 23 and having made his debut for the Uruguayan national team three months earlier, Silva was named man of the match as Olimpia of Paraguay placed themselves within touching distance of the Copa Libertadores final with a 2-0 win at home to Santa Fe.
Silva’s road to success has certainly not been the one most travelled. Upon his return to Ituzaingo, a small town in the south of Uruguay, he worked at a metalworking firm, in a leather factory, at a greengrocer and as a pizza delivery boy. But he continued to play football recreationally and had the good fortune to be spotted by a scout from Boston River, who invited him to the club for trials. Silva failed to make the grade there, but was accepted by Fenix, then in the second division.
Fenix were promoted to the Primera Division in 2009, Silva became a first team regular in the 2011/12 season and caught the eye of soon-to-be Olimpia coach Gregorio Perez while playing in the 2011 Copa Sudamericana. He joined Olimpia following the arrival of Perez as coach in July 2012 and soon established himself in the starting eleven, both under Perez and his successor Ever Hugo Almeida, who took over at the start of 2013.
International honours followed in March of this year, when he impressed off the bench in a World Cup qualifying defeat to Chile in Santiago, striking the crossbar with a rasping long range effort and getting forward with good energy from right-back. His speed, stamina and positional flexibility could well see him push his way into the squad should Uruguay manage to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, such is national team coach Oscar Washington Tabarez’s desire to be able to switch between several different formations as necessary.
If his decision making and awareness of the wider picture when going forward, and concentration in defence are rarely exemplary, the sheer forcefulness of Silva’s forward running, his willingness to take on players and his desire to win back possession when the ball is lost have seen him achieve more than could probably have been expected of him.
It is exactly those qualities that endear him to Almeida, who having watched his side dominate the first half in Asuncion on Tuesday without finding a breakthrough, was aware of the need to add greater incision to their play. With the game sure to open up following the double dismissal of Gerardo Bedoya of Santa Fe and Olimpia’s Juan Manuel Salgueiro on the stroke of half-time, Almeida acted quickly to replace the more conservative Richard Mazacotte with the direct, pacey Silva.
It was a decision that paid off handsomely, as Silva caused numerous problems for the Santa Fe defence with his strong, rapid advances from right wing-back and was heavily involved in both goals. For the first, he won the penalty dispatched by Herminio Miranda after driving forward into space on the right; for the second he ran in behind the full-back onto Eduardo Aranda’s well weighted pass and crossed low for fellow substitute Juan Carlos Ferreyra to tap home.
Silva provided the penetration that Olimpia had been lacking in the first half and with a two goal lead and no away goals conceded, they will be confident of doing enough in Bogota next week to secure their place in the final. "I'm happy with the team”, Almeida commented in the post-match press conference. “We could have scored another goal and have been all but assured of a place in the final, but even without that it is a good result."
The other semi-final, first leg also ended in a 2-0 victory for the home side as Newell’s Old Boys completely overran a lacklustre Atletico Mineiro in Rosario. Atletico showed precious little of the attacking verve that had taken them to this stage of the competition and had no answer to the spellbinding forward movement of their hosts, who dominated from the first whistle until the last.
Atletico coach Cuca, who had complained bitterly about the conditions in which his side were forced to train on the evening before the match, continued his whining with a post-match breakdown of vital decisions that he felt went against his side. He admitted that they have a mountain to climb in the second leg, but still retains hope provided next week’s referee “lets the game flow to the advantage of the home team in the same way this one did."
Newell’s coach Gerardo Martino was understandably in a better mood: “For me, a clean sheet means that we just have to score a goal there to qualify. It is a very good result. We played against the best team in the Libertadores, according to the numbers, and won with authority.”
Goal of the Week
Ignacio Scocco (28) – Newell’s Old Boys vs Atletico Mineiro
Scocco scored his sixth goal of this year’s Copa Libertadores with a superbly struck free-kick from over 30 yards that swept past the side of the wall and curled into the bottom corner of the net to double the home side’s advantage following Maxi Rodriguez’s opener.
Player of the Week
Maxi Rodriguez (32) – Newell’s Old Boys
Rodriguez was brilliant for Newell’s on Wednesday, intelligently switching positions with Scocco and Victor Figueroa and linking superbly with neat one and two touch interchanges. He had already had a low stabbed effort on goal well saved by Victor before he headed Newell’s ahead just after the hour, and was unlucky not to add another to his tally when Victor tipped his low effort onto the post and Gilberto Silva cleared the rebound off the line.
Born and raised in Rosario, there will be few prouder than Rodriguez if Newell’s can go all the way.
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