Had Pele and Diego Maradona been on the pitch at anywhere near their prime, then it is doubtful that Wednesday’s 0-0 match between their old clubs would have ended up goalless.
In a match of few chances, a number of opportunities were wasted as players of both Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Santos of Brazil snatched anxiously when a cooler head was called for.
– Vickery: Palmeiras take advantage of River Plate in Copa Libertadores
It is not easy to live up to the weight of some much tradition, especially on an occasion as tense as the first leg of a Copa Libertadores semifinal. Next week’s return match in Brazil will be more dramatic and probably less cautious. Boca were haunted by the dilemma of the first leg hosts; should they try to press home advantage? Or might it be wiser to ensure they did not concede an away goal?
Santos made it difficult for them. With all of his players available for selection, a rarity in this competition, Santos coach Cuca went bold — at least on paper. He came off his usual 4-3-3 and picked four attacking players — Marinho cutting onto his strong left foot from the right, promising and versatile centre forward Kaio Jorge, the rangy Lucas Braga on the left, and the cunning little Venezuelan Yefferson Soteldo floating in a free role.
The team did not aim to construct much through the midfield. But they would have moments to launch their counter attacks. And, crucially, they were defending by attacking. The presence of their dangerous wingers made Boca’s full backs much less inclined to push forward. And with key central midfielder Jorman Campuzano an injury casualty, Boca lacked articulation through the centre. Much of their threat came from solo bursts from Sebastian Villa, their strong winger, who was unable to combine sufficiently with Carlos Tevez. There was barely a single clear chance in the entire first half.
The question after the interval was when, and how much, the coaches would opt to change the pattern. Ten minutes after half time Santos took off Soteldo and introduced the dynamic young Sandry, reverting to their customary 4-3-3. Boca’s Miguel Angel Russo responded with an immediate — and bewildering — switch of his own. Off went central midfielder Diego Gonzalez. On came Colombian playmaker Edwin Cardona.
On paper this looked like an attacking move, even a desperate one. In practice it left Boca short handed through the middle against a team which had just re-enforced its midfield. It was here that Santos nearly won the game. Marinho may have been unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty when he was bundled over by centre back Carlos Izquerdoz. But on the other hand, just a few minutes earlier Marinho could easily have been sent off — and was extraordinarily lucky to escape any kind of sanction — for an ugly over the ball tackle.
Boca coach Russo quickly tightened up his midfield. It was the logical choice. Boca won on their last trip to Brazil, a month ago against a powerful Internacional team. They have only conceded three goals in 11 games, and now the away goals rule can only work in their favour. After Santos withdrew Kaio Jorge and moved Marinho inside, Boca left back Frank Fabra had more freedom to push forward. In the game’s final attack he and Villa combined to set up a chance for Leo Jara — who blazed his shot over the bar from the edge of the area. It was typical of the match.
Perhaps the successors of Pele and Maradona can come up with more precision in the second leg.