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 By Tim Vickery

Nacional focus on stopping Independiente's miracle Copa run

Are Atletico Nacional 90 minutes (or, 120 if it goes to extra time) away from partying like it's 1989?

That was the year when they became the first Colombian club to win the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. In front of their own fans, with all square at 1-1 after the first leg, Nacional are favourites to win the 57th version of the continent's leading club competition.

Alternatively, are tiny Independiente del Valle of Ecuador going to round off an amazing campaign with another sensational triumph on away ground? The little club from the outskirts of Quito, who a decade ago were still in the Ecuadorian third division, are making a habit of marching proudly into fearsome arenas and eliminating giant teams. Colo Colo, Chile's biggest club, were knocked out in a packed stadium in Santiago. The same fate then awaited River Plate of Argentina, the reigning champions eliminated in their own Monumental stadium. Then Independiente came through on a penalty shootout away to Pumas of Mexico, despite at one stage needing a goal when down to 10 men.

The Cinderella team made to the final by winning first home and then away against Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors, previously unbeaten in the competition.

It is sobering to think that this inspiring fairy tale could have been all over before it began. In the qualifying round, Independiente were up against Guarani of Paraguay. The scores were level at 2-2 on aggregate, with Independiente ahead on away goals, when, with the last kick of the tie, Guarani were awarded a penalty.

Atlético NacionalAtlético Nacional
Independiente del ValleIndependiente del Valle
1
0
FT
Leg 2Aggregate: 2 - 1
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Up stepped the vastly experienced Uruguayan striker Hernan Rodrigo Lopez. When Paraguayan giants Olimpia won the title back in 2002, Lopez was on target from the spot in shoot outs in both the semifinal and the final. It seemed a sure thing that independiente would fall before the group phase for the second consecutive year -- until Lopez fired his kick over the bar and into the Asuncion night, giving the Ecuadorians the chance to fly high on a journey of their own.

They were outplayed for much of last week's first leg in Quito, but still managed to scramble a late equaliser -- which sets up so well Wednesday's meeting in Medellin.

Independiente, as we have seen, have no fear of playing on the road. Atletico Nacional, meanwhile, have a fine home record in their Atanasio Girodot stadium. They have won all their matches in Medellin with the exception of their final group encounter, a goalless draw with Huracan of Argentina when they were already assured of finishing their group in first place.

The Colombians have played the most eye-pleasing possession football in the competition. But now coach Reinaldo Rueda has a decision to make; does he emphasise their passing game, or give himself some extra protection against the Independiente counter-attack?

Last week, holding midfielder Alexander Mejia was missing through suspension. He returns, but his central midfield partner Sebastian Perez picked up a third yellow card and cannot play this week. The conservative choice would be to retain Diego Arias, who filled in for Mejia in Quito. A bolder move would be to start with Venezuelan international Alejandro Guerra, whose lucidity and quality might help the team pass its way through the Ecuadorian defence.

Miguel Borja of Colombia's Atletico Nacional celebrates scoring his side's second goal in a 2-1 win vs. Sao Paulo.
Miguel Borja will lead the line for Atletico Nacional in Wednesday's second leg.

His inclusion would give playmaker Macnelly Torres, so impressive last week, another option. Torres will seek to bring Orlando Berrio's strength from the the right wing, the speed, subtlety and awareness of Marlos Moreno cutting in from the left, and the direct threat of centre-forward Miguel Borja.

Independiente, meanwhile, will look for their wide men to cause some damage on the break. Last week Julio Angulo had some joy running at the Nacional defence down the right. On the other flank, though, teenage left winger Bryan Cabezas was unable to reproduce the marvellous form he displayed against Boca Juniors. More will be expected of him in Medellin. The big doubt is the fitness of centre forward Jose Angulo, Independiente's joint top scorer in the campaign with six goals. He was carried off the field in agony towards the end of last week's match, and faces a race against time to be fit for the return game. Strong and quick, he is the fulcrum of the team's attack, and coach Pablo Repetto needs him to be as close to 100 percent as possible.

The team's other joint top scorer is attacking midfielder Junior Sornoza, who lacks dynamism from open play but whose fine striking of the ball is at its most dangerous from set pieces. It was his free kick last week that set up the team's late equaliser.

The probability is that Nacional will dominate possession in the second leg, meaning that Sornoza and company will have to take full advantage of quick counter-attacks and set pieces near the Colombian goal if the 2016 Libertadores is to climax in a happy fairy tale ending for Independiente del Valle.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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