It seemed like it had all got too much for Cuca. Standing pensively on the touchline, his arm contorted into a strange pose to allow him to chew on a fingernail, the Atletico Mineiro coach watched on as, after reversing their two-goal first leg deficit, his side toiled to find a winner during extra time of the second leg of this year’s Copa Libertadores final in Belo Horizonte. Rever struck the crossbar, Josue brought a fine save from Martin Silva, and then Alecsandro clipped an effort over the goalkeeper only for Herminio Miranda to head clear.
With no breakthrough forthcoming, the final of the 2013 Copa Libertadores went to penalties. Having geed up with players with a brief motivational speech, Cuca positioned himself on his knees on the edge of his technical area for the shootout, watching on as an early save from Victor gave his side an advantage that with each successful penalty they maintained.
As Olimpia’s Matias Gimenez stepped up for the kick that, if missed, would see Atletico crowned champions, Cuca sat, arms crossed, swaying back and forth, hugging the image of the Virgin Mary that adorned his shirt. As Gimenez’s effort bounced off the angle of post and crossbar to safety, he fell forward onto the turf, the tension released from inside of him. There he lay motionless for a second or two before being mobbed by his coaching staff.
It was a fitting end to the emotional rollercoaster that has been Atletico’s Copa Libertadores campaign. After waltzing through the group stage with the best record of any team in the competition and then comfortably dispatching fellow Brazilians Sao Paulo in the last 16, they have found the going tougher from the quarter-finals onwards, facing well-drilled, hard-working teams who have shut down space and required them to dig deep to emerge victorious.
In the quarter-final, a second leg, injury time penalty save from Victor prevented them from being eliminated at the hands of Club Tijuana of Mexico. In both the semi-final and the final, they lost 2-0 away from home before restoring parity in dramatic fashion with an aggregate equaliser in the last five minutes of the second leg. On Wednesday it was Leonardo Silva who got the vital goal, rising majestically at the far post to head home Bernard’s floated cross.
If the pazazz of their earlier performances was lacking in the latter stages of the competition, with Ronaldinho effectively shackled in both legs of the semi-final and the final, there could be no doubting Atletico’s will to win. They pushed and pushed until the goal came and then, in consecutive ties, held their nerve in penalty shootouts to come out on top. The club regularly perceived as bottlers triumphed in the most strong-willed way of all. “We have changed the history of the club”, Cuca said after the match. “A century old club has now become a lucky one.”
For Cuca, too, there was a feeling of redemption. Before joining Atletico he had a reputation as an emotionally unstable, paranoid coach, capable of constructing attractive yet flaky sides. Internacional supporters successfully campaigned against him being appointed their coach in 2011. But he has matured in Belo Horizonte. He is still superstitious, still emotionally involved in the moment, but is now capable of stepping back, of preventing his emotions from overcoming him or clouding his judgement.
He has built a team around Ronaldinho, setting up his side to get the best out of an older, slower incarnation of the former World Player of the Year. Surrounded by a phalanx of quick, incisive forwards, Ronaldinho’s passes and array of tricks and flicks have found grateful recipients, leading to Atletico at times producing the best football of this year’s Copa Libertadores.
Ronaldinho has now joined an exulted cast of players to have won both the Champions League and the Copa Libertadores, but he is the first to do so in that order. He is likely to be the first of many, with the generation that followed him to Europe featuring a number of players who played little to no football in South America prior to their moves. Lionel Messi, in particular, could one day return to his home continent to try and lead Newell’s Old Boys to the Copa Libertadores crown.
As Cuca, Ronaldinho and the rest of the Atletico squad hugged and shed tears of joy at the final whistle, Olimpia’s players walked around in a sad daze, tears of sorrow running down their faces, trying to avoid the circulating reporters who distastefully attempted to stick microphones into their faces.
In the moment Olimpia were devastated, but in the cold light of day their achievement in even reaching the final should be looked upon with great pride. When Ever Hugo Almeida took over at the start of the year he found a club in serious debt, with players who had gone unpaid for months. Part financier, part counsellor, part coach, he formed a well-organised, industrious side who closed down aggressively, defended solidly and attacked quickly. “Right now our tears need to come out”, he said after the match. “But what will remain is pride.”
For Cuca and his charges, there were similarly suspended feelings. “We haven't realised the achievement yet”, he said at the final whistle. “It is too much. We are all numb at the moment.” But when he woke up the next day Cuca would have realised the enormity of it. The man raised on a farm had led the Rooster to victory. Little could be more apt than that.
Goal of the Week
Jo (26) – Atletico Mineiro
Jo was relatively quiet in the latter stages of the competition and had not scored since his hat-trick in the last 16 defeat of Sao Paulo prior to Wednesday’s match. He showed his worth with an excellent second half performance, kicked into action by this goal in the first minute of the half. Taking advantage of a miscued clearance from Wilson Pittoni, he spun adroitly to fire low into the bottom corner of the net.
Player of the Week
Victor (30) – Atletico Mineiro
After a match in which none of Atletico’s outfield players truly excelled themselves, Victor is a worthy recipient of the player of the week honours, making good saves from Fredy Bareiro and Alejandro Silva during the match and again proving himself an adept penalty saver in the shootout, saving Miranda’s kick to give Atletico a lead they never relinquished.
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