Well, that didn’t take long. Nacional’s participation in the 2014 Libertadores Cup is mathematically over. Needing a win at home against Atlético Nacional to stay in contention, Nacional could not live up to the challenge. Then, they threw away another home game against Newell’s Old Boys and inched closer to historic failure. Meanwhile, they lost two local games to teams trying to avoid relegation, and now participation in next year’s cup is no longer certain. Nacional is a bit of a hot mess right now. I almost don’t want to talk about it, but I’ll do my best.
First up was Atlético Nacional. This was Nacional’s big chance: after holding the Colombian side to a road tie (and that only after a last minute equalizer), a home win would have given Nacional a chance to stay near the top of the group. A loss would have meant mathematical elimination; because the best they could have done then was tie Atlético for second place, and the tiebreaker would go to the Colombians on the basis of head to head results (it’s good to see FIFA move away from overall goal differential and towards this type of tiebreaker, even if in this instance it worked against my favorite team). I was on vacation and could not watch this one, but the game reports sound all too familiar. Coach Gerardo Pelusso stuck with the young players that had won Nacional’s only group stage point in Colombia, but the magic just wasn’t there this time around. Nacional looked rushed, out of sorts, as if the responsibility of needing a win was too much for them. Atlético waited for their chance and got it in the 63rd minute, when Edwin Cardona finished off a quick counterattack for the game’s only goal. Nacional tried to equalize, pushing players forward and bringing on star forward Iván Alonso, and managed to control the flow of the game, but it was not meant to be. The home loss meant Nacional could no longer grab a spot in the final 16.
A week later, with Nacional sinking in the local tournament, the team took the field in the Centenario stadium in the rematch against Newell’s (we all know how the first game went), playing for pride and something, anything to feel good about. They got it in the first half courtesy of budding star forward Juan Cruz Mascia. The twenty-year-old had a coming out party, scoring one goal and hitting the post with two other ones. Eleven minutes in, he recovered a ball deep in Newell’s territory, dribbled towards the middle of the field, and unleashed a wicked left-footed shot into the top right corner of the goal. This was only Nacional’s third goal of the group stage, having been shut out in three of the previous four games. The lead didn’t last long, however, as Newell’s tied the game just eleven minutes later on a goal by Alexis Castro. Despite Nacional’s best efforts, that’s how the half ended, as the posts came to Newell’s defense against hurricane Juan Cruz. Newell’s had possession, as in the first game, but this time it was Nacional that had the clearer chances.
The second half showed more of the same, with both teams working hard to push the ball forward. Nine minutes in, a weak clearing attempt on a corner by Mascia (hey he can’t do it all) resulted in Newell’s second goal, by Marcos Cáceres, but Nacional answered quickly. In the 61st minute, a handball in the box by crafty Argentina national team veteran defender Gabriel Heinze led to a penalty kick taken by crafty Uruguay national team veteran defender Andrés Scotti. Just like that, the game was tied again. That’s when the wheels came off: just nine minutes later, young defender Rafael García decided he didn’t like Heinze’s craftiness, so he unleashed a savage elbow to the Argentine’s face, which was justly rewarded with a direct red card. Shortly thereafter, substitute David Trezeguet, the former French national team star (he’s been around long enough that we can replace the word “veteran” with “old”) took advantage of Nacional’s numerical inferiority to score the tiebreaking goal. Goalkeeper Jorge Bava misjudged a long ball and had no alternative but to jump up and handle the ball outside the box to keep it from going over his head and into the goal. That, my friends, is an automatic red card. Nacional was down two men, and having already used all three substitutions, they were unable to put backup keeper Gabriel Araujo in the game. Scotti, ever the workhorse, grabbed an orange shirt and a pair of gloves and spent the last ten minutes of the game in goal. He did alright, except for an injury time strike by the little-used Trezeguet that made the final score 4-2 Newell’s. It was a fitting end to a surreal 45 minutes.
This is usually where I look forward and try to figure out some way to sound hopeful, but there really is no silver lining here. The team is a mess, having won just 6 of the last 33 points in play between local and international competitions. They’ve managed to fall to fourth place in the aggregate table for the local tournament, which would leave them out of next year’s Libertadores and into the much less prestigious Copa Sudamericana. Pelusso is openly calling for fans to pray to their favorite saints, although they seem more violently inclined: three of the last four games Nacional has played have ended with incidents between fans and police. After the Newell’s game, the national government decreed that they will no longer send police officers into either the Centenario or Nacional’s own Parque Central, leading to the suspension of a game this past weekend and a brewing crisis that could end with the suspension of the entire season and the fall of the current association executives. In terms of the Libertadores, Nacional must now travel to Porto Alegre and beat Gremio in order to avoid the worst group stage performance in their long history, as well as having the worst record of all 32 teams involved in this year’s competition. Other than Juan Cruz Mascia’s eye-opening exhibition, and the fact that Peñarol was eliminated from contention a day after the Newell’s game (hey, schadenfreude can be fun, plus it’s harder for the other team’s fans to rub your face in it if they’re doing just as poorly), there’s not much to rejoice about. I’ll be back one last time after the Gremio game, and then I will be interested to see what Pelusso does to put together a competitive team for next season. You know, if Pelusso is still running things.
Game Highlights (if you can call them that):
March 18th in against Atlético Nacional
March 26th against Newell’s Old Boys
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