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Comeback contenders come up short


“No pain, no gain” goes the old saying, and it is something the qualifiers for the last eight of the Copa Libertadores de America will attest to after the nerve-jangling drama of the last few days.

Although they may have faltered on the way, the teams in pole position after last week’s first legs managed to cling on to their hard-earned leads and earn the right to fight for a semi-final place. All of them, that is, except Sao Paulo, whose dreams of a third straight appearance in the final were dashed by a resolute Gremio outfit. As usual, is here to round up all the news.

Team of the week
Back in 2005, while Sao Paulo were basking in the glory of becoming continental champions, Porto Alegre’s Gremio were languishing in the Brazilian second flight. Two years down the line and O Tricolor Gaúcho are well and truly back in the big time, a fact underlined by their 2-0 defeat of the 2005 and 2006 finalists, a result that took them to an aggregate win over their domestic rivals and a place in the last eight.

“This doesn’t make us favourites for the rest of the tournament by any means. Santos have got a great team, and so do Boca Juniors,” warned coach Mano Menezes, after goals from Tcheco and Diego Souza had taken his charges through. However hard Menezes tries to dampen down the euphoria, though, there can be no question that the Gaúchos are genuine contenders to relieve neighbours and arch-rivals Internacional of their crown.

Surprise surprise
After grabbing a couple of vital away goals in Montevideo, all Necaxa needed to do to advance at the expense of Nacional was secure a 1-0 win in Aguascalientes. Los Rayos were without the traditional drive and determination that Mexican football is famed for, however, as El Bolso stood tall to record a 1-0 victory, the only win on the road this week.

Nacional had to be grateful for an inspired performance from keeper Fernando Muslera, who proved equal to everything Jose Luis Trejo’s side had to throw at him. To rub it in, Jorge Martinez put paid to Mexican hopes with a strike in the dying minutes. “Thanks be to God we got the result we came here hoping for,” said an emotional Muslera. “On a personal level, I’m delighted we managed to do it in Mexico. We want to dedicate this win to all our people back in Uruguay.” Next up for Nacional is a date with Cucuta Deportivo.

Players of the week
Goalkeeping duo Muslera and Mauricio Caranta were single-handedly responsible for seeing Nacional and Boca Juniors squeeze through respectively. Nonetheless, their shot-stopping exploits were put in the shade by a two-goal salvo from Brazilian midfielder Ze Roberto, who helped Santos complete a nerve-wracking comeback against Caracas FC.

The former Bayern Munich man showed his skills remained undimmed with a couple of fine goals either side of the break to salvage his side’s hopes. “There’s no question I’m in the best form of my career, and that’s something I’m very excited and proud about,” commented the number ten after scoring the second brace of his career. “It’s wonderful to be able to help Santos reach the quarters.”

Not surprisingly, that Santos-Caracas clash at the Vila Belmiro stadium was the game of the week. Dubbed the surprise package of the competition, the Venezuelans silenced the doubters when Jose Rey and Wilson Carpintero put them 2-0 ahead after barely half and hour. But the Brazilians were not to be denied, and Ze Roberto’s double strike, coupled with Adailton’s first-half goal, proved enough for Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s side to advance.

The departing Caracans can at least hold their heads high after a fine run that served further notice of the huge progress being made by Venezuelan football. O Peixe, meanwhile, maintained their status as the competition’s best-performing team and now have Mexico’s America in their sights.

The week’s action started off on Tuesday with the Aguilas and Cucuta Deportivo making good use of the comfortable leads they built up in the first leg. Despite losing 2-1 on their trip to Santiago to face Colo Colo, Fernando Tena’s men were never in serious danger of going out. It was a similar story for the Colombians, who find themselves in the last eight at the very first time of asking. Opponents Toluca secured a 2-0 win that was not enough to overturn last week’s 5-1 drubbing or to prevent the departure of coach Americo Gallego.

Boca Juniors and Defensor Sporting were made to suffer the following day before edging past Velez Sarsfield and Flamengo in their respective ties. The Xeneizes were grateful for the three-goal lead they took with them to Liniers, where they suffered a 3-1 reverse at the hands of Ricardo La Volpe’s spirited side. The Violetas endured a similarly nervy evening at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, losing 2-0 to Fla to squeeze through 3-2 on aggregate.

The Argentinians now face Libertad of Paraguay, who played out a 1-1 draw with Parana in Asuncion to reach the quarter-finals yet again. El Gumarelo made their narrow advantage from the first leg count and now have their eyes on matching their 2006 run to the semi-finals.

Number crunching
With Defensor Sporting and Nacional both going through, Uruguayan football is enjoying something of a renaissance. This is the first time the country has had any representatives in the last eight since 2002, when Gregorio Perez’s Penarol made it through after beating Wanderers Montevideo, only to lose to Brazil’s Sao Caetano.

Coming up
The four quarter-final first legs take place next week. The Estadio Azteca is the venue for what promises to be an attractive clash between the two highest-scoring sides in the competition: CF America and Santos. Down in Uruguay, Defensor Sporting welcome Gremio, while Boca Juniors receive a visit from Libertad. Last but not least, Cucuta Deportivo will try to keep their unbeaten home record intact when they take on Nacional.

This week’s results:

Tuesday 8
Colo Colo (CHI) 2-1 CF America (MEX)
CD Toluca (MEX) 2-0 Cucuta Deportivo (COL)

Wednesday 9
Velez Sarsfield (ARG) 3-1 Boca Juniors (ARG)
Gremio (BRA) 2-0 Sao Paulo (BRA)
Flamengo (BRA) 2-0 Defensor Sporting (URU)

Thursday 10
Santos (BRA) 3-2 Caracas FC (VEN)
Libertad (PAR) 1-1 Parana (BRA)
Necaxa (MEX) 0-1 Nacional (URU)


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