And then there were four. The CONMEBOL Libertadores – South America’s premier club competition – is now very much at the business end.
Two semi-finals, four South American giants, a whole lot of drama. Fierce rivals in international football, Brazil and Argentina are the two providers of the four teams set to do battle in the semis in October.
On one side, the all-Brazilian clash between Flamengo and Grêmio. On the other, a repeat of last year’s final and what is arguably the biggest derby in club football anywhere on the planet – the superclásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate.
One team who appear to be going from strength to strength right now is Rio giants Flamengo. Under the stewardship of veteran boss Jorge Jesus, the Rubro-Negro are scoring at a rate of two goals per game and have lost just twice in 13 matches.
This past week, against Internacional in the Beira-Rio, the visitors could quite feasibly have been two goals to the good before the half-time whistle. Currently sitting top of the Brasileirão table as well, a league and Libertadores double cannot be ruled out, particularly with the resources at Jesus’ disposal over the next three months.
🔴⚫🔥⚽ They call him GabiGOL for a reason! The @Flamengo man struck late on in Porto Alegre to secure a spot for his side in the #Libertadores semifinals! pic.twitter.com/dnR7SFY7dt — CONMEBOL Libertadores (@TheLibertadores) August 29, 2019
They will come up against a Grêmio side who put in the most impressive display in the semi-final second legs this week. Having been a goal down to Palmeiras, they headed to the Pacaembu for the return encounter needing to win, something they had ever managed to do at the famous old arena.
And the thanks go largely to one man, Éverton “Cebolinha”, star of Brazil’s successive Copa América title triumph earlier this year. His boldness, his incisiveness and his precision in the final third are invaluable to the way this Grêmio side play, and if the gaucho outfit are to make it to Santiago on 23 November you get the feeling that the Little Onion will need to be at his impervious best.
Yet the most mouth-watering prospect remains the rematch from last year’s final. Boca Juniors. River Plate. Siri, define South America’s biggest, most talked about match. It has just been served up.
River come into the clash as the defending champions, having seen off Boca over two legs in last year’s final. River Plate have certainly looked impressive over the course of the group stages and knock-out rounds, particularly in their first half showing in the quarter-final first leg against Cerro Porteño. When they click, the South Americans can be a delight to watch, and coach Marcelo Gallardo has been given the time in the job to build a philosophy and a playing style which suits the athletes he has at his disposal.
Can they match Boca Juniors for ruthless efficiency? That may well be the pertinent question as we approach this huge contest. Away to LDU Quito in the last eight, Boca blew away any doubts that they would have any problems dealing with the altitude of the Ecuadorian city, cruising to a hugely impressive 3-0 win.
The second leg was an exercise in energy conservation, most notably for the home debut of former AS Roma and Italy stalwart Daniele de Rossi in the middle of the park. What price, what value, a fully functioning de Rossi in the semi-finals against his new team’s oldest, most bitter rivals? Without a doubt, this will be the kind of experience the veteran midfielder came to South America for, and it will be an intriguing, mouth-watering prospect to watch him thrown in at the deep end. He has of course experienced Roma-Lazio, but Boca-River? This is notching up the intensity levels of passion, pressure, performance.
The Copa Libertadores is of course our answer to the UEFA Champions League. It is where the best players, the biggest clubs, the greatest stadiums can be seen. It is where you can see the next rising stars from the never-ending production line of talent take their first steps on the professional stage.
It is where you can see wily veterans – Diego, Diego Tardelli, Daniele de Rossi, Lucas Pratto – wind down their careers with one more shot at the big time. It has been a rollercoaster and there is more to come over the next 12 weeks. Come join the party.