Football

Boca, Corinthians do enough to book spots into Copa Libertadores knockout stages

Boca, Corinthians do enough to book spots into Copa Libertadores knockout stages
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Football never stops. The calendar rolls relentlessly on, leaving no chance to rest on laurels, and little opportunity to enjoy success.

Former Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo did his best on Sunday when Boca Juniors won the Argentine title. While still on the pitch, he celebrated with a beer, a cigarette and some pizza. But the weekend wonder was in danger of becoming the midweek mug.

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Just four days later Boca were back in action in the last game of the group phase in the Copa Libertadores — and there was real danger that the Buenos Aires giants might fail to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 1994. If Boca failed to beat the durable Deportivo Cali of Colombia, there was a good chance that Rojo might end the evening searching for means of consolation.

Football is also perverse. Boca came in for plenty of criticism for the way that they won their domestic honour, frequently grinding out results. But in the Libertadores, in the last two weeks at least, they were much easier on the eye. They spent much of last week’s meeting with Corinthians of Brazil on the front foot, and deserved better than a 1-1 draw.

And now they tore into Cali, with young winger Ezequiel Zeballos especially lively. But the breakthrough goal would not come, and the longer the game wore on, the closer Cali were coming to a place in the last sixteen and the tenser the atmosphere was turning. The moment of release came almost ten minutes into the second half. Boca had a free kick on the left edge of the penalty area.

From the resultant meless, keeper Guillermo De Amores cleared his lines with a punch, but the ball fell to holding midfielder Alan Valera – another of Boca’s young lions. He had already demonstrated his ability to shoot from range in the first half, and now he caught the ball perfectly, sending a fierce, skiddy shot through the unsighted keeper and into the net.

Now it was all about Cali. They had plenty of time left. Could they spoil the party? On came substitute Santiago Mosquera, who posed a threat down the left flank. His cross was superbly cut out by Rojo — earning him the right to boundless celebration, because the vastly experienced Teo Gutierrez was ready to pounce. And Boca played themselves into problems as the imminence of the final whistle set the nerves jangling. But when the whistle blew, Boca had not only qualified for the last sixteen. They had also — on paper at least — won themselves a second round match against easier opponents, because they finished on top of their group.

That was because of an extraordinary result in Sao Paulo, where Brazilian league leaders Corinthians were expected to blow away the already eliminated Always Ready of Bolivia. Instead, to a rising chorus of jeers, they were held to a 1-1 draw. A second Bolivian goal would have eliminated Corinthians.

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Football fans have to be always ready for surprises. Some things are predictable, though, and one of them is that, under the current format, the Copa Libertadores is likely to be dominated by Brazil and Argentina — underlined by the fact that, however bumpy the route, it was Boca and Corinthians who fought their way out of this group.

With six representatives each, the big two provide all but four of the last sixteen. The Brazilian challenge is spearheaded by the three clubs who dominated last year’s competition — reigning champions Palmeiras, 2019 winners Flamengo and domestic double holders Atletico Mineiro, all of whom qualified without breaking sweat.

Also through, of course, are Corinthians — plus two teams who dug deep to save themselves from early exit. Veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had had an immediate effect on the fortunes of Athletico Paranaense, while competition debutants Fortaleza turned round a dreadful start to book their place in some style.

In addition to Boca, Argentina have the stylish River Plate among the favourites, while Estudiantes played an impressive group phase, pragmatic with occasional flashes of talent. And there are three more. The young Velez Sarsfield side seemed to have no luck after some early reverses. They were always attractive, but were continually undone by poor defending. Once this was improved, they charged down the home straight to snatch a place, while Colon from Santa Fe and Talleres of Cordoba exceeded expectations by booking their place with a round to spare.

The entire rest of the continent, then, is restricted to four teams, from three different countries. The action has already come to an end for Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. After three barren years, Colombia finally have a team through to the last-16 — Tolima, the country’s best side in recent times, who saved themselves at the last with a memorable win away to Atletico Mineiro, ending their long unbeaten run in the competition. This was good enough to pip Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle.

But Ecuador still has representation — Emelec played a patchy campaign in a weak group, but improved in the course of the six matches, and ended with a conclusive 7-0 rout of Bolivia’s Independiente Petrolero.

And Paraguay, which so often punches above its weight, has two teams left. Libertad topped their group, while there was a place at stake between the country’s traditional rivals, Cerro Porteno and Olimpia. Three times LIbertadores champions, Olimpia have the competition pedigree, goal, 4-0 winners in Sunday’s domestic derby, Cerro Porteno had the momentum. They could also afford to lose by a one goal margin — but had a fright when Fernando Cardozo shot Olimpia into an early lead. In a game billed as one of the most important in over a century of rivalry, it was perhaps inevitable that more light than heat was generated.

There was a dearth of clear chances. Olimpia only really threatened again in second half stoppage time, and the Cerro Porteno fans sang their side home. Rarely has a 1-0 home defeat in a big local derby been so celebrated. The important thing, though, is that it is the name of Cerro Porteno that goes into goes into Friday afternoon’s draw.

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