On Tuesday night a strange collection of shamanistic paraphernalia was discovered on the side of highway leading to the hotel where Atletico Mineiro were staying ahead of the first leg of their Copa Libertadores final with Olimpia. Offerings of food and liquor were left, alongside a doll and notes mentioning the names of various Atletico players, including Ronaldinho.
The following evening, Ronaldinho was particularly lethargic and ineffective as Atletico went down to a 2-0 first leg defeat in Asuncion. His performance was reminiscent of the mid-nineties film Space Jam, in which a dastardly band of aliens suck the talent from a number of professional basketball players, rendering them useless. Cuca had little choice but to substitute him just after the hour mark. “He was bad”, the coach admitted afterwards.
Yet there was no extraterrestrial or higher power at work at the Defensores del Chaco stadium on Wednesday. The reason for Ronaldinho’s poor display was far more prosaic. Just as Diego Mateo had all but nullified him over the two legs of the semi-final with Newell’s Old Boys, so Eduardo Aranda marked him out of the match on Wednesday. Strong, disciplined and quick into the tackle, Aranda barely gave the former World Player of the Year an inch of space.
Aranda’s performance exemplified that of his team, as Olimpia put everything into opening up a first leg advantage and providing themselves with a superb chance of winning the club’s fourth Copa Libertadores title next week in Belo Horizonte. Atletico created chances, primarily through the powerful, quick Diego Tardelli, but it would be hard to argue that Olimpia were not deserved victors on a night in which sheer effort and determination saw them through.
Up front, Fredy Bareiro and Juan Manuel Salgueiro worked the whole width of the pitch and did an adept job of pulling Atletico’s central defenders out of position. In midfield, Aranda, Alejandro Silva and Wilson Pittoni worked tirelessly, with the latter pair consistently getting up and down the pitch to contribute at both ends. The defence were solid, and goalkeeper Martin Silva excelled himself with a couple of quality saves to deny Tardelli and Jo.
In a match that was primarily about toil and sacrifice, it is notable that both of Olimpia’s goals were of the highest quality. The first, scored by Alejandro Silva, was an unstoppable low drive in off the inside of the post after he had drifted in from the right. The second, scored by Pittoni, was a superbly placed free-kick from the edge of the area – over the wall, over the man on the line, off the underside of the bar and in.
Those goals have given Olimpia a good cushion ahead of the second leg, but coach Ever Hugo Almeida was loathe to get ahead of himself. “We have a 51% chance of winning the Libertadores”, he commented. “There is still a match to play.” Almeida speaks from experience, having been between the sticks when Olimpia surrendered a 2-0 first leg advantage to lose on penalties to Atletico Nacional of Colombia in the 1989 final.
There is also the small matter of Atletico Mineiro’s comebacks from two goal deficits in each of their last two knockout round ties. In the quarter-finals, they were 2-0 down with half an hour left to play in Tijuana before goals from Tardelli and Luan restored parity, and in the semi-final against Newell’s they lost 2-0 in Rosario, but reversed that score in Belo Horizonte and emerged victorious on penalties.
Atletico will be without suspended first choice full-backs Marcos Rocha and Richarlyson (the first, a major blow; the latter, perhaps a blessing) for the second leg, but will be able to welcome back Bernard, whose incisive runs were, in the words of Cuca, “sorely missed” on Wednesday. If Ronaldinho and Jo (who has not scored since his hat-trick in the last 16, first leg win over Sao Paulo) can return to form, there is still a chance they could overturn their first leg deficit.
Cuca, certainly, remains positive. “The same group who today are lost and dispirited will, next Wednesday, be champions”, he said in the post-match press conference. “We will work hard, and with the crowd behind us, we will reverse the deficit."
Goal of the Week
Wilson Pittoni (27) – Olimpia
Alejandro Silva’s goal was brilliantly taken, but the execution of Pittoni’s clipped free-kick in second half stoppage time was truly a sight to behold. There was only a small gap into which the ball could be placed and he found it, to the delight of his coach, team-mates and the supporters inside the stadium.
Player of the Week
Martin Silva (30) – Olimpia
A number of Olimpia players impressed on Wednesday, but Silva takes the award due to the sheer consistency of his performance. He dealt competently with high balls into the area, was quick off his line to snuff out potential chances, and made an excellent save with his foot to keep out Jo’s well struck low effort in the final quarter hour of play.
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