Liga de Quito: Coming out of the group of death with new life

Cast your mind back, if you can, it has been a long time, to the 2020 CONMEBOL Libertadores draw. Back on December 17, 2019, it became clear that Group D would be one of the top candidates for a group of death.

Three teams which have won Libertadores titles were in the same group, with four-time winner River Plate, three-time winner São Paulo and 2008 champion Liga de Quito. River and São Paulo, not only because of their historical success but also because of their recent success both domestically and in the Libertadores, went in as the favorites.

Instead, it’s the Ecuadorian side topping the group heading into the final matchday, its spot in the Round of 16 already secure.

The draw was way back 10 months ago, but it also takes a long memory to recall the last time Liga de Quito was defeated in any competition. Aucas’ 2-0 home victory over the capital club on August 22 is the last instance, with Liga running off a dozen-game unbeaten streak after that included LIbertadores triumphs over Binacional (twice) and a 4-2 win over Sao Paulo in September.

Now, a draw against River Plate on the final matchday of group play would be enough for LDU not only to get out of the group but to top it.

“At this stage of the year, we’ve achieved the goals,” manager Pablo Repetto said earlier this month in a news conference. “All that makes us calm. We celebrated it and enjoyed it, but now you think about the future. I’m thankful to the players who were the architects of everything we’ve been doing the last few years.”

Much of the success has come at the back, with Liga allowing just five goals in five Libertadores matches this year, including March’s 3-0 defeat to Sao Paulo which stands as the only blemish on an otherwise sterling record.

Franklin Guerra and Moises Corozo are center backs in their prime and have spent the vast majority of their careers in the domestic league but in front of goalkeeper Adrián Gabbarini have forged a partnership that looks like one of the most difficult to beat in South America. The arrival of Argentine midfielder Lucas Piovi on loan from Arsenal (the Argentine one) has helped soften the loss of veteran Antonio Valencia.

While LDU currently has a +7 goal difference in Libertadores play, no player has more than two goals over the five-game stretch. Colombian forward Cristian Martinez Borja led the domestic league in scoring with a dozen goals and Adolfo Muñoz started Phase 2 with a pair of goals, but each have managed two goals total in the Libertadores. Billy Arce, the Brighton loanee whose only goal came in against Sao Paulo, also can provide some attacking spark.That may be the determining factor as to whether LDU can make a serious run toward doubling the number of Copa Libertadores trophies it has in its possession or fans will remember it as a team that overachieved by getting out of the group of death.

If they continue to grow as a team and find the attacking firepower to match their strong defense, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the club will make the deepest run in the tournament by an Ecuadorian team since 2016 when current LDU boss Repetto led an upstart Independiente del Valle team all the way to the final.