History in focus for Copa Lib's big week

March 4, 2012

Copa Libertadores will evoke highlights of both its illustrious past and present when action resumes this Tuesday, with arguably the week's most intriguing tie kicking off the tournament's 10-match week. Then, one of the most successful clubs in the tournament’s history welcome an emerging power looking for its first Libertadores crown.

Peñarol is one of South America’s true giants. Just over half a century ago, the Uruguayans won the first ever Copa Libertadores and went on to appear in five of the tournament’s first seven finals. Now that seems a distant memory, with 2011's tournament ending in disappointment after coach Diego Aguirre, the man who scored the wining goal in the club’s last Libertadores triumph (1987), saw his side humbled by Santos - a repeat of the 1962 final.

This week, Peñarol host Universidad de Chile, a club whose continental history has only just begun. Last year, the club sealed its first-ever international honor, going 36 matches unbeaten as it romped to both domestic league titles, while winning South America’s secondary club competition, the Copa Sudamericana. “We never lost sight of our priorities, which are to get forward and look for goals,” explained coach Jorge Sampaoli (a self-confessed disciple of Marcelo Bielsa). His Barcelona-esque brand of high-tempo, attacking soccer had everyone from Buenos Aires to Barranquilla adamant 'La U' were the very best the continent had to offer.

The run was heralded as the beginning of what could be the club’s greatest era, but unfortunately for those assuming longevity, soccer in the Americas has changed considerably since the days of Peñarol’s heroics. With European clubs always ready to swoop, dynasties are much tougher to build. Star forward Eduardo Vargas joined Italian club Napoli, while Marcos Gonzalez and Jose Manuel Rojas headed to Brazil. Reinforcements have arrived, however, and La U bounced back from defeat in its Libertadores opener to Colombia's Atletico Nacional with a stunning 5-1 demolition of Argebtina's Godoy Cruz (featuring a hat trick from Vargas’ replacement, Junior Fernandes). Talented playmaker Pedro Morales has been repatriated, as has forward Emilio Hernandez, and there are high hopes for teenagers Raúl Ruidiaz and Angelo Henriquez.


Peñarol, meanwhile, has found reinforcements much harder to come by. They have yet to recover from the loss not only of the majority of its squad but of Aguirre (to the Middle East). Jorge da Silva was appointed as the club’s new coach last week following the dismissal of Gregorio Perez – reportedly fired via telephone– and immediately vowed to fight for the Libertadores. “I know what it means to be the coach of Peñarol,” he told the media on Thursday. “It’s a big club [and] you have to aim to win everything you play [for].” With two defeats from two matches in Group 8 and still facing trips to Chile and Colombia, mere qualification from the group looks a tall order, even if da Silva finds a result on Tuesday night.

But the tie of the week arrives the following evening, evoking memories of a much more recent past as Boca Juniors host Fluminense at 'La Bombonera.' The two sides met at the semifinal stage in 2008 on a night that can be cited as the start of Boca's decline, one that left the club on the outside looking in at 2010 and 2011's tournaments. Having inspired Boca to its sixth continential title upon his previous year's return from Spain, talismanic playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme had set his sights on a repeat. But after having twice given his side the lead in the first leg, a mistake from goalkeeper Pablo Migliore proved the catalyst for the complete breakdown in the relationship between two of the club’s most famous sons.

Martin Palermo has since retired, and Boca - having claimed last year’s Apertura championship - is among the favorites for this year’s trophy. Current Boca midfielders Pablo Ledesma, Sebastian Battaglia and Christian Chavez were also part of the 2008 side and will be desperate for revenge.

Fluminense went on to the final that year but lost out to a club writing a history of its own. Flu came up short after a ding-dong, two-legged, ten-goal final that saw Ecuador's LDU Quito win the country's first Libertadores via a penalty shootout in Rio. It was a night when current Flu midfielder Thiago Neves etched his name into the history books by becoming the first man to score a hat trick in the competition’s final. He, too, featured when the two sides met three years ago and will be another looking for redemption. “At the time Riquelme said he never heard of Fluminense, but we responded on the pitch,” he told Lance! this week. “Now they all know, and they will respect us more.”

A mouth-watering week reaches its climax on Thursday evening with an all-Brazilian tie, with reigning champions Santos looking to bounce back from a surprise defeat to Bolivia’s The Strongest when they take on 2010 champs Internacional. Santos star Neymar is hoping to carve his own legacy by emulating Pele in leading the Peixe to back-to-back trophies.

When the 20-year-old extended his contract with Santos last year, he said it was because he wanted to “make history.” This week, he won’t be the only one.