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Tom Robinson has a look at the recently concluded Copa Libertadores 2016 as Atletico Nacional deny Independiente del Valle fairytale ending.
In a year which has seen a pack of sporting underdogs beat the odds, Ecuadorian side Independiente del Valle were a whisker away from adding another illustrious example of overachievement to the roll call. But it was to be Goliath who prevailed, as Miguel Borja’s ninth minute strike gave Atletico Nacional a 1-0 win in front of a packed out Estadio Atanasio Girardot and secured a 2-1 aggregate victory, making them the first Colombian side to lift the Libertadores twice.
It’s hard to argue against the outcome. One of the most fancied sides going into the tournament, Atletico Nacional underlined their credentials with a devastating group stage display, winning five and drawing once without conceding a single goal. It’s rare that the early pacesetters maintain their momentum in this uniquely challenging competition but los Verdolagas dominated from start to finish with their blend of power and precision passing. As well as bossing the possession stats, their total of 10 wins, three draws and only one defeat made them the most successful team in Libertadores history. Simply put, the best team won.
That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. In the Round of 16 second leg against Huracan – the fourth time the sides faced each other – there were cries of foul play after referee Jose Argote awarded Nacional a soft penalty and later harshly sent off Federico Mancinelli, before a massive brawl broke out at full-time. Against Rosario Central too, Reinaldo Rueda’s men had to come from two goals down to win 3-2 with a decisive injury time winner from Orlando Berrio, followed by more unseemly scenes after some unnecessary gloating from the cocksure Colombians.
What’s more, the Copa Centenario-induced break also threatened to disrupt Nacional’s preparations ahead of the semi-finals. Key man Victor Ibarbo and regular starter Jonathan Copete left before their clash against Sao Paulo, while Miguel Borja was drafted in as a replacement striker. In similar fashion to Lucas Alario for River last year, Borja made an instant impact, scoring braces both home and away against Sao Paulo to take el Verde to the final. The 23-year-old, who has had a fairly nomadic career since impressing for the Colombia U20s, was once again on hand when it mattered in the final, reacting quickest to a rebound to net the goal to make it 5 goals in 4 games as Atletico Nacional repeated the 1989 heroics of Higuita and co.
Borja will get the plaudits for his influential role but Atletico Nacional’s triumph is rooted in the collective. Since the club was acquired by Organizacion Ardila Lulle two decades ago, the club has flourished into a well-oiled machine that has dominated the domestic scene, particularly in recent years under previous manager Juan Carlos Osorio. Reinaldo Rueda has intelligently built on the foundations left by predecessor, resisting the urge to tinker too much and taking a strong core to the next level by achieving continental glory after el Verde Paisa narrowly missed out on the Sudamericana in 2014.
Rueda was able to rely on a watertight backline that kept nine clean sheets and only conceded six goals in fourteen games. Experienced Argentinian goalkeeper Franco Armani was in sensational form throughout and became one of the club’s most decorated players with this his 10th trophy for the Medellin-based outfit, while full backs Daniel Bocanegra and Faryd Diaz were consistently solid. Any questions aroused by the sale of key centre back Oscar Murillo at the start of the year were emphatically answered by the emergence of young Davinson Sanchez, who formed an excellent partnership alongside Alexis Henriquez.
This harmonious balance of youth and experience could be seen across the squad. Up-and-coming holding midfielder Sebastian Perez knitted play together with his passing, Alexander Mejia brought solidity and leadership to the centre of the park, and Venezuelan international Alejandro Guerra was in sparkling form and was arguably player of the tournament. The added creativity of Macnelly Torres, a glorious old-school foot-on-the-ball style playmaker, allowed Nacional to dictate possession and tempo, whilst providing the ammunition for 19-year-old wonderkid Marlos Moreno, the bull-like Berrio cutting in from the flank and Borja or Ibarbo up front.
In what was a near flawless campaign, the result underlines Atletico Nacional place at the top table of South American superpowers and, with Santa Fe’s Sudamericana win, suggests that the traditional Argentinian/Brazilian stranglehold on continental silverware could well be under threat.
As for Independiente del Valle, they can look back on their performance with pride. In only their third Libertadores appearance, the club from Sangolqui on the outskirts of Quito provided the feel-good fairytale of the competition. As well as their rise from obscurity – the club were only promoted to the Ecuadorian Serie A for the first time in 2010 – their donations of matchday gate receipts to help victims of the earthquakes in April, which claimed the lives of 661 and left over 27 thousand injured, quickly endeared them to neutral supporters.
Although they were unable to match the feat of LDU Quito in 2008, their remarkable run to the final sent some much-needed positive shockwaves across the continent and arguably is as important an achievement for Ecuadorian football as Liga’s maiden victory eight years ago. Taking into account the fact they had the youngest average aged squad, the smallest stadium and were the first team to eliminate both Boca and River in the same tournament, their campaign will resonate for many years to come.
Centred around an ethos of youth development, Independiente have some of the best facilities at their academy and are a well-run club with minimal debts – something of an anomaly when it comes to South American football. With Pablo Repetto at the helm since 2012, los sangolquileños have reaped the benefits of a stability and long term vision that many clubs on the continent can only dream of. The likes of Jefferson Montero, Juan Cazares, Cristian Ramirez and Jonathan Gonzales made their names for the Negriazules and have all gone on to represent the national team.
True to their philosophy, their epic journey to the final was based on a youthful core. Talismanic playmaker and set piece specialist Junior Sornoza has long been at the centre of much of their success and weighed in with six goals and three assists, while pacey left winger Bryan Cabezas looks to be the latest in the recent tradition of fine Ecuadorian widemen. Elsewhere, Jefferson Orejuela was the lungs of the midfield and Jonny Uchuari and Gabriel Cortez also made noteworthy contributions.
Perhaps the player that most caught the eye was 21-year-old livewire forward Jose Angulo whose six goals, including a beautifully taken winner against Boca, were vital for Independiente. A potent combination of pace, power and trickery, Angulo also netted the decisive away goal against 2015 semi-finalists Guarani in the qualifying round and a brace against a good Pumas side in the quarters. Europe surely awaits, with Atletico Madrid rumoured to be interested.
Complementing the youthful streak running through the side was the imperious goalkeeper Librado Azcona, who produced numerous virtuoso displays between the sticks, and the Uruguayan trio of Rizotto, Tellechea and Nuñez who, along with their compatriot in the dugout, provided the experience and nous needed for their spate of against-the-odds giant killings that quickly became something of a trademark.
However, as is often the case, success attracts admiring glances from afar and the depressingly inevitable process of dismantling has already begun for both finalists. For Independiente, Sornoza and Orejuela will be trading Quito for Rio as they both join Fluminense, while impressive centre back Arturo Mina is on his way to River Plate. Maybe the hardest to replace will be manager Repetto, who has left to take over Baniyas in the UAE, and new man Alexis Mendoza will have large shoes to fill.
As for Atletico Nacional, Sanchez has been snapped up by Ajax for €5m, Marlos Moreno is set to join Manchester City for around €10m, and Mejia will be turning out for Leon in Mexico. But, like Independiente, they have a good structure in place and good young prospects emerging so will hope to rebuild quickly in time for a potential clash against Real Madrid at the World Club Cup in Japan later this year.
Written by Tom Robinson