Independiente, Nacional all square in Copa Libertadores final first leg
There is still a chance of a happy ending to the fairy tale, with the Cinderella team Independiente del Valle of Ecuador snatching a draw in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final against Atletico Nacional of Colombia on Wednesday.
Backed by a packed crowd in Quito, Independiente tried to come quickly out of the blocks. They deployed right winger Julio Angulo cutting inside, with the idea of running at Alexis Henriquez, Nacional's veteran centre-back. It nearly drew early results. An Angulo run forced a yellow card for defensive midfielder Sebastian Perez, and from the resultant free kick Nacional keeper Franco Armani had to make a smart reflex save after the ball deflected onto the face of Arturo Mina.
But Nacional played their way into the game, passing the ball and quieting the crowd. The key man was their experienced playmaker Macnelly Torres. Now 31, a Libertadores title could be the crowning glory of his career. He came close nine years ago (when Independiente del Valle were still in the Ecuadorian third division).
At the time Torres played for Cucuta, a provincial Colombian side who suddenly hit a run of superb form and narrowly failed to make the 2007 final. He was their midfield inspiration, a master of the pass that slips the striker through on goal.
Torres should have been part of the Colombian national team's 2014 World Cup campaign. Instead, a few months earlier, he accepted a big money move to the Middle East. His physical condition, never a strong point, let him down and he was left out of the squad. Wednesday, then, is his moment, and the first leg of the final was his match. He dictated the rhythm, linking the lines of the team by dropping to exchange passes with the central midfielders, and then seeking to supply the wingers.
Ten minutes before half time, he played a typically imaginative pass. In possession in centre-field he used the movement to his right -- an advance by full-back Carlos Bocanegra and a looping run from Marlos Moreno -- as a decoy, instead cutting the ball back to Orlando Berrio to his left. Immensely strong, Berrio rolled Mina as he moved inside to his right, made space on the other centre-back Luis Caicedo, and with defensive midfielder Mario Rizotto unable to get back in time, Berrio pulled the trigger and beat the keeper from the edge of the area.
Soon afterwards Moreno nearly doubled the lead with an inspired snap shot from range that sailed just over the bar. Nacional, though, seemed happy with their night's work. They played a second half of patient containment and may feel in retrospect that they should have worked harder to push home their advantage and effectively kill off the tie in the first leg.
Instead, the teams are level for their meeting next Wednesday in Medellin. And with the away goals rule not in operation, the fact that Nacional scored in Quito does not mean that they will take the field already "winning" 0-0.
For almost the entire second half, though, it was hard to see where an Independiente goal was going to come from. The hosts tried to bring left winger Bryan Cabezas, a match winner in the semifinal against Boca Juniors, into the action, but he made little impact. Halfway through the half the two wingers, Cabezas and Julio Angulo, were replaced by fresh legs, the tricky Jonny Uchuari and the speedy Jonathan Gonzalez.
It made little difference. And, inside the last five minutes, when centre-forward Jose Angulo was carried off in agony it seemed that any last chance of an equaliser had gone.
But the Independiente del Valle story did not deserve to end in a damp squib. Rather, it merited a first leg climax as explosive as the firework display which had greeted the players when they came out on to the field. Independiente's No. 10 Junior Sornoza lacks dynamism from open play, but he strikes a set piece wonderfully well. His free kick hit straight caught Franco Armani in no man's land. The ball came back off the keeper and, at the second attempt, Mina forced home -- setting up next week's second leg all square.
Atletico Nacional will go into the match with a nearly flawless home record but Independiente del Valle are the little side who love going into South America's biggest arenas and emerging victorious.
The stage is set for an epic encounter.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.