Matias Martinez breaks deadlock for Lanus over Santos in Copa Libertadores

Lanus' Matias Martinez celebrates his winner against Mexico's Santos Laguna.  

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko/Getty Images

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina —

For Lanus, the quarterfinals are within touching distance.

Missing five key players through injury or suspension, Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side came from behind thanks to a second-half performance of great spirit and fight to take a 2-1 lead after the first leg of its Copa Libertadores last-16 tie against Santos Laguna. The job is far from done, but the sense must be that if Lanus can out-scrap its opponent as it did in its final half-hour, it will have an even better chance when at least three of those absentees return next week. There must be great heart to be draw as well from the performances from the bench of Oscar Benitez and Lucas Melano: there are options, and there is strength in depth.

Whatever Lanus do, it’s hard not think of it as an underdog. Lanus the place doesn’t really feel like part of Buenos Aires – and, in a sense, it isn’t. For most of its existence it was a town in its own right, south of Avellaneda, which proudly retains its own identity distinct from the capital, but the sprawl of Buenos Aires has engulfed it, and it’s now something between a suburb and a satellite town, home to thousands of commuters who make the trip into the centre of the city each day by train or minibus.

The buildings are lower, the atmosphere less hectic than in the center, while the shopping street that leads from the station towards the stadium feels like a million other precincts across the world, a drab funnel for litter. A couple of years ago, in a curious symbol of football’s indiscriminate globalization, the street was dominated by a huge Adidas billboard of the Liverpool full-back Glen Johnson – this in the town where Diego Maradona was born. He has gone now and, with him, the one quirk that raised the street even slightly above the ordinary.

Some grounds are notoriously intimidating, the noise the fans create off-putting to the away side. The Estadio Nestor Diaz Perez is not one of them, even if Lanus is now 17 games unbeaten at home against continental opposition. It’s neat enough and, in the context of Argentinian grounds, less ramshackle than most, but it’s rarely anything like full.

On Wednesday, the crowd was probably something like 15,000, well under half capacity. The barras are noisy enough, with their strange, spinning pre-kick off dance, but they can’t make up for the acres of empty terracing, the crush barriers sprucely painted in the clubs’ maroon and white colors. It doesn’t help the general atmosphere, of course, when the away support is so sparse: a total of six fans, brandishing two small Mexican flags, were there to support Santos Laguna.

They saw their side start cautiously, the midfield sitting extremely deep. The coach Pedro Caixinha’s touchline gesticulations made clear what he wanted, as he gestured constantly for his side to stay compact. He seemed happy to sacrifice the flanks to restrict space in central areas just outside the box, denying Lanus room to work openings.

The home side’s only real chance of the first half came from Diego Gonzalez, darting into a pocket and hitting a shot from 30 yards that Oswaldo Sanchez tipped over.

Without the suspended Santiago Silva, there was a lack of cutting edge about Lanus, Ismael Blanco struggling to impose himself on the game. Only when the ball was worked left to Lautaro Acosta did Lanus really threaten and, after Jose Abella had been booked for an early foul on the winger, he was extremely fortunate six minutes before half-time that the referee, Patricio Polic, having seemingly played advantage, choose to go back to the initial foul after he had chopped down Acosta again. Sergio Hernandez was booked in the second half after pulling back the same player.

HEAR US OUT

Gradually, Santos Laguna began to open up, without ever over-committing. As the midfield sat deep, the onus was on Darwin Quintero, who performed the lone front man role superbly, forever buzzing around, looking for space, pressuring Lanus’s defenders when they had possession, always willing to chase the series of long diagonals that were banged into the left channel for him to chase.

He’d gone close with a couple of shots in the first half, but it was 13 minutes into the second half that he got his reward, scampering into a throw-in as Lanus dozed and thrashing the bouncing ball into the net from a narrow angle.  Had Paolo Goltz and Maximiliano Velazquez been available, and Lanus been able to field its first-choice central defensive pairing, would it have been so sloppy? Perhaps not, but given how well Matias Martinez, in particular, performed generally, the question is perhaps unfair.

Facundo Monteseirin made amends seven minutes later, though, rifling in a low first-time shot with such glee that he seemed almost to be celebrating before the ball reached him as an over-hit corner was returned to the box. Melano, on for Blanco, very nearly gave Lanus the win with five minutes remaining, but his stretching stab at a dropping ball drew a fine low reaction save from Sanchez. And then, with fewer than 10 seconds of the five minutes of added time remaining, Martinez did win it.

Again, the sources was a dead ball – a free-kick from wide on the right this time; again Santos Laguna failed fully to clear it and, with Sanchez caught out of his goal, Martinez leapt bravely and high to force the ball into the empty net.

It had been coming. The longer the game went on, the more dominant Lanus became. It lacked a little subtlety and the spark that Silva provides, but eventually the chances came. The tie’s far from over, but for Lanus the first half of the task is done. Avoid defeat in Mexico next week and it will be into its first Libertadores quarterfinal.