Only four months after the first round, the 2012 Copa Libertadores has already reached the semi final stage. We’ve had a wonderful tournament so far, full of drama, tension and some superb football, but oddly enough there have been very few surprises. In a setting that usually throws up a fair amount of shock results, we have seen the better sides prosper, and this year’s semi final quartet are arguably the continent’s four best teams.
From Brazil, we have last year’s winners Santos and the current Brazilian champions Corinthians, and they are joined by Boca Juniors and Universidad de Chile, the champions of Argentina and Chile respectively. Thanks to CONMEBOL’s ruling that pairs together clubs from the same nation in the semi final draw, the two Brazilian sides will face each other in the first semi, while Boca and Universidad de Chile will battle it out for the other place in the final.
The semi final draw has came out perfectly, as in each tie we will be treated to a mouthwatering clash between one flamboyant and expressive attacking side, and one solid and organised defensive unit.
The reigning champs and often regarded the best side in South America. Santos are a very good team, strong in attack and lethal at home. They face a huge task with an all-Brazilian semi against their fiercest rivals, and will be looking to open up an advantage in the first leg in front of their own fans in Santos.
Santos play a fairly traditional 4-3-1-2 formation, with a good midfield and reliable defence and the ultimate difference-maker up front in young winger Neymar.
They have some really good quality footballers all across the midfield, languid playmaker Ganso is a genius with the ball at his feet, while energetic shuttler Arouca often makes deadly forward runs into the space created by Neymar drifting out to the touchline, and even Elano is still capable of some inspired flashes of brilliance. However, despite these diverse talents, nine out of every ten Santos attacking moves end up at the feet of Neymar, their not-so-secret weapon.
Of course, this ‘reliance’ on Neymar can become problematic in situations where he is tightly marked and unable to influence proceedings. Against Argentine side Vélez Sarsfield in the quarter finals, Neymar was handled by two right-sided players in Vélez’s tight, crowded 4-4-2 formation, conditions that he rarely faces in Brazil, and he failed to make any impact on the match.
As their attack is so dependant on Neymar, they struggled in that tie, losing the first leg 1×0, before levelling the tie late in the second leg in front of their home fans. They then went on to eliminate Vélez on penalties.
There is also a question surrounding the fitness of number ten Ganso, who is recovering from knee surgery. It looks like he will be able to play, but if he does have to pull out, coach Muricy Ramalho will have to do a little reshuffling. Most likely, Muricy would bring Elano into the number ten role, move Henrique onto the right-side of midfield and play the young Maranhão at right back. That alteration wouldn’t make much of a difference to Santos’ playing style, but Ganso’s quality and flair would be a huge miss.
Corinthians are the undoubtedly the biggest club in South America never to have won the Copa Libertadores (they have yet to even make it to a final), and in a city where they are surrounded by fierce rivals that have won it, Corinthians fans are reminded about it on a daily basis. As the very nature of Brazilian football culture is based on victory and bragging rights, conquering the Copa Libertadores has become an absolute obsession for Corinthians fans, and whether or not the players succumb to that pressure could be vital in their blockbuster semi final against Santos.
Corinthians’ playing style is arguably more European than South American. They play a solid 4-2-3-1 shape with a midfield double pivot, a line of three attacking midfielders and a central striker, and they pride themselves on their organisation and being very tough to beat.
Their key man is 23 year-old central midfielder Paulinho, who plays as the slightly more offensive member of the midfield double pivot, a position known in Brazil as the segundo volante. His contribution to the team is massive, in all phases of play. His ability to break up play makes Corinthians far more secure in midfield in defence, and going forward he is often the one that kick-starts attacking moves, serving as a very effective link between midfield and attack.
He even provides a goal threat of his own, as he showed in the quarter final when he scored the only goal of the whole 120 minute tie against Vasco da Gama. When Paulinho plays, Corinthians are a much better side. When he doesn’t, they are painfully normal.
Corinthians are often dubbed as being tactically predictable, but in fact they are one of the most reactive sides in the tournament, albeit while always sticking to their basic 4-2-3-1 shape. Faced with the threat of Neymar, Corinthians head coach Tite is bound to make some kind of tactical alteration to combat his effectiveness.
After seeing how Vélez silenced him with two compact banks of four and two markers, Tite will most likely try something similar and secure Corinthians’ right flank. Jorge Henrique is the most plausible candidate to play on the right side of midfield, as he likes to work back and can still open up the Santos defence on the counter attack. Tite may go one step further though, and bring right back Alessandro into midfield and perhaps even play a centre back on the right of defence.
On the other side of the ball, Corinthians have been having a bit of an issue with their forwards, as they are simply not scoring goals. Against Santos, Tite will most likely start with Emerson, who is not a natural centre forward and will look to work back into midfield.
When one mentions the Copa Libertadores, Boca Juniors are one of the first clubs to come to mind, and now after a difficult few seasons, the six-time Libertadores winners are right back in the hunt for another title. Also on their minds is the fact that they are chasing their third treble-winning season in their history, as aside from the Libertadores, they are top of the league in Argentina with two games remaining, and in the final of the Copa Argentina.
Under Julio César Falcioni, Boca play a 4-3-1-2 system which is geared towards defensive security. In the midfield, there is one holder who screens in front of the back four, with two carrileros (midfield shuttlers) on either side providing a constant link between defence and attack. Juan Román Riquelme sits in front of them as the archetypal South American enganche, and he has two forwards to aim at. In defence, the centre back pairing is ageing and painfully slow, but they stay very deep and rarely give up any space behind them.
At 33 years-old, Riquelme is still integral to this Boca Juniors side. Even though he often comes across as uninterested for the majority of the match, plodding lethargically around the midfield and drifting out to the left, it is guaranteed that at least once during a match, he will pull off a marvellous pass and leave a team-mate clean through on goal.
Their attacking strategy is essentially to break quickly and get numbers forward to provide Riquelme with passing options, which means they are reliant on forward runs from the carrileros and left back Clemente Rodríguez. News that Rodríguez may miss the first leg through injury is very troubling indeed, and if he does miss out he will be replaced by 22 year-old Juan Sánchez Miño, a promising youngster who is more suited to playing in the midfield.
Boca are a very difficult team to beat, as shown by the fact that they are still active in three tournaments, but my only fear is how they will cope is they are forced to chase the match and seek a goal. Their attack certainly isn’t as dominant as the likes of Santos and Universidad de Chile, especially without Clemente Rodríguez, and if they have to come out of their shell, their massive lack of pace in defence will leave them very vulnerable to the counter-attack.
UNIVERSIDAD DE CHILE
Certainly the most attractive footballing side in this year’s Copa Libertadores, Universidad de Chile’s wonderful performances have captivated the hearts and imaginations of football fans all over the world. Managed by the brilliant and eccentric Jorge Sampaoli (a self-confessed Bielsa disciple) they strolled to last year’s Copa Sudamericana, South America’s Europa League equivalent, and now they have their eyes on the big one. With the imminent departures of key players (and possibly the coach) this will most likely be the final hurrah for a wonderful team, and they will be hoping to go out on a high.
Universidad de Chile are the only team left in the competition to play with a back three, a tactic that is still somewhat common in South America, and I covered their exciting 3-4-3 formation in some depth last month. In fact, if broken down further, their shape is more accurately defined as a 3-1-3-1-2, with regista Marcelo Díaz dropping back from midfield and controlling the match from deep, and Gustavo Lorenzetti retreating from the front three in his false nine role, opening up space for the attackers and forward-running midfielders to exploit.
Their main weakness, as with Bielsa’s Chile side in 2010, is the back three. Ever since the departure of Marcos González to Flamengo, they are far less organised at the back and much easier to stretch and pull apart. There is also the possibility that team captain José Rojas will miss out through injury, and that could leave them even more vulnerable.
Furthermore, Universidad de Chile often find it difficult against deep-lying, organised sides, so Lorenzetti’s false nine role will be more important than ever, trying to open up gaps in what will be an overcrowded attacking zone.