Hello again everybody, once again El Bolso is here to tell you about Nacional’s Libertadores 2014 campaign. When last we saw our heroes, they were getting pummeled by Newell’s in Argentina and their chances of moving on were looking rather dim. This week they traveled to Colombia to take on Atlético Nacional de Medellín, desperately in need of a turnaround. There was some controversy (of course) in the run-up to this game as coach Pelusso decided to concentrate on winning the Uruguayan tournament, splitting his team into two and keeping many of his stars (including Alonso and Scotti) home. They even sent Richard Porta on the trip, even though he’s recovering from injury and not able to play, because the rules state that eighteen players must be present at the game. In any case, I was there as always (well, watching on the ol’ laptop at home) to find out what would happen.
As has become customary for these posts, let’s find out a little about Nacional’s opponents. Atlético hails from the city of Medellín, located about 5,000 above sea level in the Andes. Medellín is home to about 2.5 million people and is infamous as the home of Pablo Escobar, as well as the location of many a battle between rival drug cartels. However, while soaring crime rates and violence have been an ongoing issue for decades, the city is also one of Colombia’s main business and economic centers and a focal point of the Colombian fashion industry, and it possesses a vibrant cultural scene, including a renowned tango festival (the city has always had a soft spot for the dance, and was site of all-time tango superstar Carlos Gardel’s death in a 1935 plane crash). Atlético is one of the two major soccer teams in the city and one of the country’s main powers: its sixteen local championships are second only to Millonarios (yes, the millionaires). On the international stage it is the most successful Colombian side with five trophies in total. It is also one of only two Colombian teams to win the Libertadores Cup, and the first one to do so in 1989. As far as historical connections with the Tricolores, there isn’t much, although both Luis Cubilla and Juan Mujica, who featured prominently on the 1971 Nacional squad that won the Libertadores for the first time (that post should be up very soon), coached the team in the 1980s.
On to the game we go. The referee assigned to this match was Mexican international Marco Rodriguez, known to announcers in Mexico and the US as “Draculín” (Little Dracula) due to his severe facial expressions and a haircut straight out of The Munsters. He’s known for not taking any crap from players, which I thought was a bad sign for Nacional as the road team, but he immediately proved me wrong. Twenty seconds into the game, Atlético midfielder Alejandro Bernal challenged Maxi Calzada for a ball in the middle of the field. Calzada got there first, and Bernal took him out. Rodriguez ran over to Bernal and without hesitation pulled out the red card. Personally, I thought a yellow would have been more appropriate, but I wasn’t about to complain, as Atlético was down to ten men almost before the game started. Two minutes later, Carlos De Pena recovered a ball around the midfield line and started driving towards the goal. The home defenders let him do it, more concerned about an outlet pass from De Pena than anything else, (he did a good job of selling the idea that he was looking to do just that), and when he got to about five yards away from the penalty box he unleashed a sneaky shot towards the near post. The goalkeeper dove late and the ball grazed his right hand and went in. Nacional was in great shape, and things would get even better in the 19th minute when a nice give and go between Morro García, back in the starting lineup thanks to Pelusso’s squad manipulations, and Calzada left Morro all alone in front of the goalie. He brought the ball under control with his chest and took a low shot past the keeper, and Nacional was up two. Could they do it? Could they get back on track, on the road against a difficult opponent?
The rest of the game was dominated by a frantic Atlético team desperate to come away with something after the disastrous start. Even with ten men they cornered Nacional in their own half, exploiting the same weaknesses you’ve been hearing about in all of these posts: lack of speed, excessive passivity, and a lack of creativity up front. Nacional had a couple of chances to put it away: a run by De Pena that ended with him unable to find a wide open Morro, a sweet free kick by Hugo Dorrego and a few counterattacks that didn’t come to fruition. Still, with backup Jorge Bava starring in goal, Nacional was holding on to the lead and dreaming about being right back in this group. But eventually, their luck gave out. In the 70th minute, Atlético got on the board on a goal by Daniel Bocanegra after a corner kick. Then, in the second minute of added time, Bocanegra gave his team a well-deserved tie with a potent shot that Bava could not stop. One minute later, it was all over, and Nacional had wasted a precious opportunity. A tie on the road, especially in the altitude, is usually a great result, but the way in which it happened, and Nacional’s less-than-ideal situation as far as the standings are concerned, made it feel more like a loss.
I’d like to take a minute to talk about the game’s coverage for a second. I’m not talking about Fox Sports, which owns the TV rights, but ESPN. I had their game page open while I watched the game so I could keep track of the stats, substitutions, and so on, and I was surprised by the lack of accuracy. I can’t tell you about Atlético’s players, because I’m not familiar with them, but I noticed something wrong about four out of the eighteen players that Nacional listed for the match. First of all, starting defenseman Luis Espino was listed as Luis Luis Espino, which isn’t too bad, just a simple typo. And Carlos De Pena’s last name was misspelled as “De Peña,” but that’s also understandable, as the latter is a more common last name. However, it gets worse: both Renato Cesar (a forward) and Gabriel Araujo (the backup goalkeeper) were listed as defensemen; never mind that, according to ESPN, Nacional had no backup goalie for the game, or that Cesar has been on the main Tricolor squad for a couple of years now. Actually, I am guessing that it was Renato Cesar they were talking about, as ESPN referred to him as “Renatinho Potiguar.” I have no idea where they got that from (was John Travolta involved?). The point is, this isn’t some local tournament in some unknown country; it’s the Libertadores Cup, the second biggest club soccer tournament in the world (please don’t tell CONMEBOL I said “second biggest”). Surely there’s some way that ESPN can obtain accurate roster information prior to the game? I joked to Jobu that all they had to do was call up GolTV, which carries most of Nacional’s Uruguayan league games. That was a sad effort by ESPN Deportes.
So where do we stand now? Well, Nacional is in even more trouble than they were before, but there’s still hope. After this week’s games they are only three points away from the both Newell’s and Atlético for second place, although their goal differential is a problem. They still have not proven that they belong on the field with either team; even up by two with an extra man on the field they were dominated by Atlético. Still, they face both those teams at home in the next two weeks, and if they’re able to get positive results, they may have a chance going into the last game against a Gremio team that may already have qualified for the next round. It’s not looking good, and losing those two points on a last minute shot really hurts, but the fact that they were finally able to score goals gives me hope that they can turn it around. We’ll see what happens next week.
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