The dream looked to be in doubt, but Olimpia held on in Bogotá, withstanding wave after wave of Santa Fe attacks, and have qualified for their seventh Copa Libertadores final. Tonight, they will find out their opponents, as Atlético-MG go toe-to-toe with Newell’s Old Boys in the match we’ve all been waiting for.
Considering the gap in quality between the domestic leagues of Brazil and Argentina, Atlético are the stronger team and were made favourites to qualify before the first leg. However they find themselves in real trouble and trail their Argentinian adversaries 2-0 on aggregate.
Clearly, Atlético have a huge task ahead of them. But at least they have a clear objective: they must do what they do best and attack. In the first leg in Rosario, Atlético head coach Cuca decided upon a contained, defensive approach – they played poorly and conceded twice. Tonight, however, they have no choice.
Atlético can take heart in their home advantage. They have now gone an unbelievable 52 matches without losing at home, partly due to the atmosphere created at the Estádio Independência. The cramped, high stands in the 23,000-seater ground in Belo Horizonte can generate quite an intimidating noise.
However, the last time Atlético played in the Copa Libertadores at the Independência – the quarter-final against Tijuana – they were less than convincing. The match has been remembered for goalkeeper Víctor’s heroic last-minute penalty save, so it has been easy to forget that Galo were second best for most of the game against an organised Tijuana side. Newell’s Old Boys are an even tougher prospect.
The main concern for Atlético is conceding an away goal. Because of the 0-2 aggregate score, a Newell’s goal this evening would force Atlético to score four times in order to qualify.
That said, it looks like Newell’s will be content to stand off, play deep and pick their moments on the counterattack. In my opinion, this approach would be a mistake. Newell’s can move the ball from defence to attack quicker than most teams, but they struggle to consistently create good chances. Were they more adept in playing the final pass, perhaps the first leg would have ended 4 or 5-0, instead of just two.
If Newell’s were to look to take advantage of spaces left by Atlético and have sustained spells of pressure, I believe they will score. If they sit back and wait for three or four counterattacks to present themselves, chances are they will draw a blank.
Overcoming a two-goal deficit is not beyond Atlético, especially if their attacking quartet plays to their abilities. The pressure will be enormous though, and they need to remain mentally strong if they are to have any chance of winning.
Going back to Olimpia, it would be easy to say that tonight’s match will decide the trophy, as both Atlético and Newell’s are stronger sides than Olimpia. But the Paraguayans are an intelligent, resolute side with a clever head coach, and they could certainly spring a surprise. Furthermore, Olimpia have done this before. Known as the “Rey de Copas”, they are three-time champions of the Copa Libertadores, with their most recent triumph coming in 2002. For Atletico or Newell’s, there will be the added pressure of a potential first Libertadores.