Tom Robinson looks back at the 2017 edition of the Copa Libertadores after Gremio overcame Lanus to take home the cup
With the first half of the decisive Libertadores final second leg drawing to a close, Gremio’s excellent Luan produced a moment worth of winning any competition. The 24-year-old support striker found space on the left and drifted in-field towards a retreating and uncharacteristically ragged Lanus backline, before effortlessly waltzing past a couple of defenders and exquisitely dinking the ball over Esteban Andrada to make it 2-0 on the night and three ahead on aggregate.
There was to be no comeback this time for Lanus. The Argentinians had made a habit of staging dramatic comebacks; Jorge Almiron’s side had overturned a two-nil deficit in the quarter-finals to beat San Lorenzo on penalties and then sensationally stormed back from a three goal deficit to win 4-3 and dump River out in the semis. However, this was one obstacle they couldn’t overcome.
Veteran striker Jose ‘Pepe’ Sand did pull one back from the spot to make it 2-1 and give Lanus some hope, becoming the tournament’s leading scorer in the process. Nevertheless, the accomplished Brazilians held on, despite the loss of midfield metronome Arthur through injury and a red card to Ramiro, to win 3-1 on aggregate and claim a third Libertadores title.
Gremio were deserved winners, winning more games, scoring more goals and conceding fewer on their run to a first Libertadores title in 22 years. But it was also the way they did it, almost always sticking to their slick, attractive, high-pressing style. They could also mix it up when they needed to, as demonstrated by their more direct, aerial change of tact in the first leg of the final which led to Cicero’s winner in the Arena do Gremio, and their excellent away record spoke volumes of the personality and mentality in the squad.
Manager Renato Portaluppi becomes the first Brazilian to win the Libertadores as a player and coach, having previously starred in Gremio’s first victory back in 1983. The triumph should put to bed any criticisms that Portaluppi had merely inherited the good work of Roger Machado and he has now built on last year’s Copa Brasil win with another trophy achieved in style.
On the pitch, there were big performances right through the spine of the team. Marcelo Grohe was easily the goalkeeper of the tournament and his point-blank save in the semi-final against Barcelona was a huge moment in their campaign. Centre back pairing Geromel and Walter Kanneman were imperious throughout and young midfielder Arthur was a revelation with his passing and dynamism in the centre of the park. Pedro Rocha made a good contribution before his sale to Spartak Moscow, while Lucas Barrios and talismanic Luan were constant threats up front.
For the first time since 2013 a Brazilian side had won the Libertadores and made it ten different winners from this decade’s editions. Now they’ll gear up for the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and, thanks to the Libertadores’ new year-long format, will for once go to the tournament with momentum and before their prize assets have been picked off.
Elsewhere in the Libertadores, there were a number of noteworthy performances. Barcelona of Ecuador were neutrals’ favourites for their energetic performances and colourful home games. Playmaker Christian Aleman lit up the group stages but was sold to Estudiantes, while powerful Marcos Caicedo, young defender Dario Aimar and firebrand forward Jonathan Alvez – think the lovechild of Diego Costa and Pepe – were all standouts.
Surprise package of the tournament came in the form of Bolivian minnows Jorge Wilstermann, who put out the fancied Atletico Mineiro to reach the quarter-finals and proceeded to give River Plate an almighty shock by beating them 3-0 in the first leg. They were mercilessly put to the sword, comprehensively beaten 8-0 in the return leg, but there’s was a story that captured the imagination in the way only the Libertadores can.
Fellow Bolivians The Strongest also did well to make the knock-outs, with Alejandro Chumacero in outstanding goal-scoring form, and Chapecoense only missed out on qualifying from the group stage due to fielding an ineligible player. Now a year on since their devastating tragedy, it was a phenomenal achievement to do so well with a newly assembled side and South America rejoiced when they confirmed their top flight status in the Brasileiro.
As ever, the madness of the Libertadores also continued in time-honoured tradition. There were the heart-warming stories like Atletico Tucuman’s madcap race against time to reach the El Nacional stadium after a delayed flight and still winning, despite not even having their own kit and having to borrow from the Argentina U20s.
Inevitably there were also more negative incidents such as the regrettable – and insufficiently punished – brawl between Penarol and Palmeiras, as well as the bizarre idea to introduce VAR ahead of the semi-finals which went on to have a fairly big role in the semi-final between Lanus and River, before being largely ignored in the final.
What with the new year-long format of the Copa, the wait for more Libertadores action won’t be long with the 2018 edition less than two months away!