Independiente del Valle take another step vs. Boca Juniors in fairy-tale Copa
Might the Copa Libertadores be on course for a fairy tale perhaps even more remarkable than Leicester City's Premier League title?
Little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador have already knocked out River Plate, the reigning champions of South America's Champions League equivalent. Now, in the first leg of the semifinal they have beaten the other Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors by two goals to one. Boca, who have won the Copa six times, had previously been unbeaten in this year's competition.
The Argentines took the lead in the 12th minute, a three-man combination down the left ending with Pablo Perez cutting in to slide past Liber Azcona, Independiente's veteran keeper.
But the early goal on away ground may have worked against Boca. Sparing their energies in the altitude of Quito, going ahead appeared to remove any responsibility they felt for taking the initiative in the game. From then on there were few attacking combinations from the Argentines, who lived off occasional scraps, especially from nervously struck back passes from the Ecuadorians, playing the most important game in their club's history.
Most of the action took place at the other end. Independiente threw their full-backs forward, pressed high and had the game's outstanding player in Bryan Cabezas, a teenage left winger who exemplifies the quality of the youth development work which has underpinned the recent rise of this little club. Strong, quick and skilful, Cabezas gave the Boca defence plenty of problems, and seemed to have set up the equaliser when his low cross found Junior Sornoza in front of the Boca goal some 10 yards out. Sornoza, though, somehow steered his shot wide. Cabezas would have to get on the scoresheet himself to bring his side level.
It happened just after the hour. Boca right back Leonardo Jara slipped, allowing Cabezas the space to cut inside on to his right foot and fire into the far corner. A few minutes later, the other Boca full-back made a mistake. On the left, Frank Fabra lost possession with a casual chest down. Mario Rizzotto threaded a pass into the penalty area, where centre-forward Jose Angulo artfully turned to his right, shaking off the defenders and shooting across the keeper for Independiente's second.
Boca then woke up. They came very close to a last-gasp equaliser when the nervy Azcona spilled a free kick and substitute Rodrigo Bentancur had a close-range shot blocked. Independiente, though, were good value for their win. Now they will have to defend for their lives in Buenos Aires next Thursday. A day earlier, Sao Paulo of Brazil will have to come up with something special in their second leg away to Atletico Nacional of Colombia.
The six-week pause between the quarterfinals and semifinals should have given the Brazilians a huge advantage. Their domestic championship kept on while the Colombian league took a break. Sao Paulo, then, should have been far more prepared than their rivals without even taking into account the financial chasm between the clubs. The Colombians lost two of their most important players during the break. Sao Paulo, meanwhile, bought centre-back Maicon who had been on loan, in a deal that made him one of the 10 most expensive signings in the history of Brazilian football.
They may have regretted their investment when Maicon, the team captain, was sent off in the 73rd minute. It was a harsh decision. He was annoyed with Nacional centre-forward Miguel Borja, who was hanging on to the ball when the Brazilians had a free kick. But letting frustration get the better of him, Maicon pawed Borja across the head, and so he could not have too many complaints about his red card.
The game was goalless at this point, but the Colombians had been better. They had drawn the Sao Paulo sting -- a few early moments of enthusiasm, but all heat and no light -- and had enjoyed the clearer chances. With Sao Paulo down to 10 men, the Colombians went for the kill. They circulated the ball well, with the clarity of Alejandro Guerra and Macnelly Torres dovetailing with the exciting ability and fine decision making of Marlos Moreno. In the last 10 minutes, they twice carved open the defence, twice Borja was clean through on goal, and twice the Sao Paulo keeper was beaten.
Given the competitive advantage that Sao Paulo should have enjoyed, the 2-0 scoreline was remarkable. But the Colombian victory was fully deserved. A comeback in the second leg is not impossible, but it will need an improvement beyond all recognition in Sao Paulo's performance to prevent a third consecutive Libertadores final with no Brazilian involvement.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.