Ever since their defeat on penalties to Sao Paulo in the 1977 league championship final, Atletico Mineiro have carried the tag of bottlers, a club who, through means unknown, have contrived to falter whenever glory has been within their grasp. Throughout the televised era of Brazilian football there have been few losers as celebrated as Atletico Mineiro.
Even last year, when they achieved their best league position in 13 seasons, there was an air of disappointment, of a chance squandered, surrounding Galo’s second place finish. When they waltzed through the group stages of this year’s Copa Libertadores with the best record of any qualifier, the club’s supporters could have been forgiven for seeing it as little more than a glorious prelude to failure.
Their coach, Cuca, may also have feared the worst. He has garnered a reputation for forging exciting yet flaky teams, including the Cruzeiro side who powered through the group stages of the 2011Copa Libertadores before falling 3-2 on aggregate to Once Caldas of Colombia in the last sixteen.
Atletico eased into the last eight in fine style, dispatching compatriots Sao Paulo 6-2 on aggregate, but when Club Tijuana were awarded a penalty in second half stoppage time of the second leg of their quarter-final, which if scored would see them progress at Galo’s expense, it seemed that the club had again found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Television images showed their dejected supporters on the verge of tears as Duvier Riascos placed the ball on the spot. But somewhere in the universe a light shined on Galo, as Victor, having dived to his right, stuck out a leg to divert the centrally-aimed spot kick to safety and secure his side’s passage to the last four.
In the dressing room after the match a member of the club’s staff presented the squad with the ball that Victor had saved, which was signed by the players and staff and kept as a good luck charm. It will travel with them to Asuncion next week for the first leg of Atletico Mineiro’s first ever Copa Libertadores final after Victor again played a key role in seeing them past Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina on Wednesday.
Atletico had put in a very lacklustre performance in the first leg, going down 2-0 in Rosario having managed just a single shot on target. It was a result that left them with much to do in the second leg, but Cuca tried to maintain a positive outlook, wearing a t-shirt that read, ‘Yes We C.A.M’ (the C.A.M referring to the club’s initials, taken from their full name: Clube Atletico Mineiro) to a pre-match press conference and emphasising the boost they would receive from playing in front of their own supporters.
That optimism appeared well placed when Bernard raced in off the right onto Ronaldinho’s well-weighted through ball and fired Atletico into to a fourth minute lead, but clear cut chances were few and far between in the rest of the first half and Newell’s took control in the second, keeping hold of the ball more effectively and looking well organised in defence.
With eight minutes to play Cuca rolled the dice, replacing fan favourite Diego Tardelli with Guilherme, a former player of arch-rivals Cruzeiro who had contributed little of note in his two years at the club. And, as the stars aligned once more for Galo, it was Guilherme who provided the key intervention, controlling a half clearance on the edge of the area and unleashing a well struck half-volley that zipped off the turf into the bottom corner of the net.
That goal took the match to penalties, where Victor was again the hero, producing an excellent save to push away Maxi Rodriguez’s effort and give Atletico a 3-2 victory in the shootout.
Cuca, decked out in a t-shirt depicting the Virgin Mary, had watched from his knees, habitually looking to the heavens for assistance, but rose triumphantly to join the celebrations as the ball fell to a rest outside the penalty area. “I strongly believe in luck”, he said in a post-match interview. “The more I work, the luckier I get.”
The next test of his and Atletico’s newly discovered fortune comes in the form of Paraguay’s Olimpia, who lost 1-0 away to Santa Fe on Tuesday but still progressed 2-1 on aggregate. A well-organised, tactically efficient team, they may not have the star power of the likes of Bernard and Ronaldinho on their side, but they are certain to make it a competitive final.
Goal of the Week
Guilherme (24) – Atletico Mineiro vs Newell’s Old Boys
Although Galo’s first goal was also very well executed, Guilherme’s strike takes the Goal of the Week honours by virtue of both its technical quality and the pressure of the situation. With time running out and the club’s Copa Libertadores dream seemingly coming to an end, it would have been easy to snatch at the opportunity, but Guilherme’s execution was perfect, giving the goalkeeper no chance.
Player of the Week
Victor (30) – Atletico Mineiro
It is a clean sweep of the honours for Atletico this week, with Victor again proving his importance to the club with a couple of good saves during the match and the winning penalty save in the shootout. He will hope that his rich vein of form has been sufficient to catch the eye of the Brazilian national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
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