Independiente del Valle seek to repeat history with Copa Libertadores magic
Could it really happen again? Might history really repeat itself?
A year ago, little Independiente del Valle of Ecuador looked down and out in the qualifying round of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. The last kick of their second-leg tie was a penalty to their opponents, Guarani of Paraguay. Up to take it stepped Hernan Rodrigo Lopez, a Uruguayan of undoubted pedigree.
Back in 2002, when Olimpia of Paraguay won the title, both their semifinal and final games went to shootouts. Lopez scored both times -- he would surely not be overawed now by the importance of the occasion.
But he shot high into the Asuncion air and Guarani were out. On the away goals rule, Independiente del Valle were through to the group phase.
No one paid a great deal of attention at the time. After all, Independiente are a tiny club from the outskirts of Quito, a club that just a decade ago were still in the Ecuadorian third division.
But soon the continent was forced to sit up and take notice. Independiente knocked out the mighty River Plate of Argentina, the reigning champions, with a heroic draw in Buenos Aires. They beat the famous Boca Juniors home and away to reach the final -- where they went down by a single-goal margin to Atletico Nacional of Colombia.
And now, 12 months later, the soap opera is up and running once more. Independiente again found themselves in the qualifying round of the Libertadores. And again they were facing early elimination.
In Monday's first leg they won 1-0 away to Deportivo Municipal of Peru. But in Friday's return match they were 2-1 down as the game entered stoppage time, and on their way out on away goals. And again they saved themselves. Gabriel Cortez slid home a last-gasp equaliser that keeps them alive in the competition.
So might this be the prelude to more surprising heroics? It is possible, of course. One of the great charms of the Libertadores is its unpredictability. But there are two reasons to believe that what happened in 2016 will not take place in 2017.
The first is the nature of the club. Independiente del Valle have come a long way with a simple, well-applied model of administration. Their aim is to survive by producing and developing young players, either in their own youth ranks or by spotting talent at a young age. The return, of course, comes when the players are sold. And so success serves as a giant shop window. Of the 11 members of the starting lineup from last year's Libertadores campaign, nine have been sold. The remaining two, the Uruguayan pair of Christian Nunez and Mario Rizzoto, are there to provide a bit of battle-hardened experience to help their younger teammates.
The model presupposes permanent transition, as the most promising players are sold on. The greater the success, the faster the transition. The 2016 Copa Libertadores final also represented the end of an era, with long-term coach Pablo Repetto moving on.
The consequence is that Independiente del Valle go into this year's campaign with a hastily assembled squad under a new coach, former Colombia international Alexis Mendoza. The chances of immediate success, then, are reduced.
The other factor working against them is the way in which the format of the competition has changed. After last year's desperately tight qualification round triumph over Guarani, Independiente advanced straight through into the group phase.
This year, though, the tournament has been expanded. Despite seeing off Deportivo Municipal, the group stage is still a long way off. There are two hoops they have to jump through to get there. The second one will pit them against the winners of the tie between Botafogo of Brazil and former champions Colo Colo of Chile. And in order to reach that stage they must first overcome three-time champions Olimpia of Paraguay.
This entails what will surely be a touching reunion, as Olimpia are now coached by Repetto, the manager who did so much to put Independiente on the map. He has taken a couple of his former charges with him. Goalkeeper Librado Azcona, who used to captain the little Ecuadorian side, now lines up for Olimpia, alongside quick little winger Jonathan Gonzalez.
And so Repetto, the mastermind behind last year's remarkable run to the Libertadores final, now has the task of ensuring there is no repeat.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.