This week Atlético Mineiro and Palmeiras, Brazil’s two biggest and most expensively assembled squads, travelled to Bolivia for the fifth of their six group games in 2017’s Copa Libertadores.
With the financial might at their disposal these two sides should, in theory, be far ahead of most South American, and in particular Bolivian, opposition. But, in recent years, Brazilian clubs have severely under-performed in the Libertadores and the conditions in Bolivia can make away games a tough task.
Atlético Mineiro travelled to the city of Santa Cruz to face the delightfully named Sport Boys Warnes. Santa Cruz is in the eastern lowlands of the country, so altitude, as it so often is in the mountainous nation, was not an issue. Atlético started off the round on 7 points and a win would effectively see them through to the knock-out stage.
Manager Roger Machado sent his team onto the pitch without their two hugely experienced star players, Robinho and Fred, perhaps in an effort to keep them fresh for Sunday’s Campeonato Mineiro final.
It seemed a slight risk given Sport Boys had run Galo close last week. The Bolivians were 1-2 up with 20 minutes to go in Belo Horizonte, though Atlético eventually won 5-2, a score that eventually looked far more comfortable than it was. It was Fred who had dug them out of that particular hole, scoring four times late on.
However, the gamble paid off terrifically. Rafael Moura and Juan Cabezas, the replacements for Fred and Robinho, each found the net within the first 20 minutes, exposing Sport Boys’ glaring defensive frailties. The squad depth that Atlético’s financial power allows was put to good use; to have a player as talented as Cabezas on the bench is a luxury few South American sides can afford.
After their early strikes, Atlético appeared to forget that a two goal lead does not automatically put an end to a football match and almost completely stopped playing until half-time. This let Sport Boys back in and they won a penalty when Leonardo Silva handled in the box. José Castillo duly converted.
After the break, though, the Brazilian side wrested back control and from then on the result was never in doubt. Elias, Otero and Cabezas added further goals and a well-deserved sheen to the scoreline. The free kick from which Otero scored was well struck (as always) but the Bolivian keeper Carlos Arias should really have done better.
This game was resounding proof that there really are some easy fixtures in the Libertadores.
Palmeiras, on the other hand, travelled to the city of Cochabamba, which sits at a challenging 2,600m above sea level. They were there to play Jorge Wilstermann, a far stronger adversary than Sport Boys.
Like in last week’s game against Peñarol, which made worldwide headlines after a fight broke out at the final whistle, the team from São Paulo managed to show both the best and the worst that they can produce within the space of 90 minutes. In fact, they showed both extreme facets of their game just in the first half.
Within a minute Jorge Wilstermann’s lone front-man Rios had missed a sitter from a yard out after some pathetic Palmeiras defending. For 15 minutes after that, though, the men in green were in control. Roger Guedes created danger in the opposition penalty area with a jinking run and low cross. Alejandro Guerra even set pulses racing by fizzing a shot very narrowly wide from behind the half-way line. The ‘keeper was well beaten and most in attendance appeared to think it was going to find the net.
Then, almost as if a switch had been flicked, o Verdão were back to their worst. A Wilstermann free-kick was floated into the area and seemed to spend an age in the air. Inexplicably, Fernando Prass stayed glued to his line and right-back Omar Morales took the invitation to bury his header. Eduardo Baptista should be looking to work on set pieces as Palmeiras conceded in the same way against Peñarol.
Moments later Palmeiras were at it again. Wilstermann’s Christhian Machado won the ball in his own half and advanced 30 yards without a single player in green getting anywhere near him. Growing in confidence with every unchallenged step, he proceeded to rifle a shot into the top corner. 2-0.
That seemed to wake Palmeiras up again and they pulled one back through Guerra, who volleyed home a knock down from a free kick in the dying seconds of the first 45.
In the second half Palmeiras were pressing and probing and creating, before they shot themselves in the foot once more. Prass came out to meet the advancing Saucedo, who had easily beaten right-back Jean to the ball, and brought him down. Penalty. Rudy Cardozo made no mistake as he thumped in from the spot.
Then the game swung back in the Brazilians’ favour again. A Jorge Wilstermann own goal, off the head of sub centre-forward Cabezas, and Palmeiras were back in it. They couldn’t, however, make the most of the final shift in momentum and the engrossing (if technically poor) game finished 3-2 to the home side.
Palmeiras already had 10 points and still top the group, but Sport Boys are now breathing down their necks with nine and Atlético Tucumán moved onto seven with their win over Peñarol in Group Five’s other game. In their final match, Palmeiras can lose by a one goal margin against Tucumán and still progress. Anything worse, plus a win for Wilstermann, and the favourites will be out.
Elsewhere it was a mixed week for the Brazilians. Grêmio went to Chile to face Deportes Iquique and came off the worse, losing 2-1. Ex-Borussia Dortmund man Lucas Barrios opened the scoring with his fourth goal in his last two Libertadores games but Iquique turned it on its head with a Diego Bielkiewickz penalty and beautifully dispatched Diego Torres free-kick. Grêmio still lead the group, however, and only need a home draw against a miserable Zamora side to progress.
Atlético Paranaense also succumbed to defeat in usually fortress-like Arena da Baixada at the hands of San Lorenzo. The Argentines ran out comfortable 3-0 winners and the rubro-negro fans made their dissatisfaction with the directors and manager known by pointedly singing the names of recently-sold players and booing their replacements. Paranaense had also lost 3-0 to local rivals Coritiba in the Paraná state championship final on Sunday.
Flamengo, in the same group as Atlético Paranaense, had a rather more productive evening. They beat Universidad Católica, from the Chilean capital Santiago, by three goals to one in the Maracanã. Paolo Guerrero was once again on target for the rubro-negro Carioca, whist his fellow Peruvian Miguel Trauco and Rodinei, getting a rare start, bagged the others. Santiago Silva, otherwise known as ‘the Tank’, got Católica’s only goal.
After five games in Group 4 Flamengo are out in front on nine point with San Lorenzo and Atlético Paranaense close behind on seven and Católica bringing up the rear on five. All four, however, have a chance of qualifying going into the last round of fixtures.
Lastly, the game from Tuesday night between Botafogo and Barcelona de Guayaquil. Botafogo were at home in the Nilton Santos but were unable to control Barcelona, who look like they could be one of the dark horses in this year’s competition. The Ecuadorian side, despite being quite open, are full of pace and attacking verve. It was their relentless energy forcing Botafogo into relinquishing possession in dangerous areas that gave them their two goals on the night. O Fogão, who have so far looked far superior to the sum of their parts, collectively had a night to forget.