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Hello fans! El Bolso is here again to discuss the end of the Libertadores group stage. Things are about to get real, and Nacional did not put themselves in the best position. Let’s see what happened!

 

More than a Formality

Nacional and Rosario face off for first place in the group. (Debate Goleador)
Nacional and Rosario face off for first place in the group. (Debate Goleador)

 

As you know from my last post, Nacional came into this game having clinched a spot in the knockout rounds, but that didn’t mean they could sit back and relax. The way the Libertadores work, there are no 15 draws spread throughout the last phase of the tournament like UEFA likes to do with theirs; too much opportunity for frozen ping pong balls. The teams are arranged by group position and overall record and paired up according to performance: so the best first place team plays the worst second place team, second best plays second worst, and so on. This rewards teams that perform better (or ended up in an easier group, but no method is perfect), and minimizes shenanigans. Sometimes it produces weird matchups: this year, Atlético Nacional and Huracán, fresh from beating up on Peñarol in the group stage, will meet yet again in the third round, meaning they will have played 4 of their first 8 competition matches against one another. In addition, teams that finished first in their group receive an extra reward: they host the deciding game of the home and away ties (this actually applies throughout the knockout rounds; the higher seeded team always plays at home last).

 

Because of this, finishing first in your group and winning the most possible points is important, and Nacional needed a tie at home against Rosario Central to top their group. The Tricolores had several chances to clinch that spot earlier. Some they squandered on their own, like when Ignacio “Nacho” González decided to score the best goal of his career on his own net to salvage a 2-2 tie for River Plate. Some were due to typical CONMEBOL refereeing (as I am quick to remind you on every single post). The point was, a tie got them the group lead and a more favorable draw.

 

OK, Maybe it Was Just a Formality

"Who are these fuckin' guys?" (Nacional.uy)
“Who are these fuckin’ guys?” (Nacional.uy)

 

However, I speculated last week that coach Gustavo Munúa might consider resting several players to avoid knockout round suspensions, keep the team fresh for local competition, or just get over the damn mumps already, and that’s what he did. Stalwarts like Nicolás LópezMauricio VictorinoSantiago RomeroGonzalo Porras, and even keeper Esteban Conde didn’t even make the bench. I mean, you can’t pretend you’re taking a game seriously when you’re letting Nacho start, right?

 

In any case, the game flow was pretty predictable, with Nacional protecting the tie and trying, not very successfully, to mount some sort of attack (although they nearly took the lead 21 minutes in on a great play by Leandro Barcia), and Rosario working hard to get the goal that would get them first place. They got it near the end of the first half on a header by Alejandro Donatti, who was inexplicably left all alone in front of the keeper on a corner kick. Rosario would add a second goal in the 69th minute, just a great individual effort from Germán Herrera, and that was it. The 2-0 final score leaves the Tricolores in second place, although still in the knockout phase for the first time in 3 years.

 

No, No it Wasn’t

Put your hands in the air, if you's a Libertadores playa. (Nacional.uy)
Put your hands in the air, if you’s a Libertadores playa. (Nacional.uy)

 

After this week’s games the field for the third round is complete, and as it turns out Nacional didn’t do itself any favors by losing this game. It’s difficult to say what the matchup would have been if they had ended in first place; it would depend on where they fit into the overall table (so whether they tied or beat Rosario would have mattered) and alternative universe maths are hard. Still, I can’t imagine they would have done much worse than having to face 3rd seed Corinthians, which is what they now must do. The Brazilians haven’t even conceded a goal at home so far in the tournament (3 games, 3 wins, 9 goals for), although they did have a so-so record on the road, tying Independiente Santa Fe, losing to Cerro Porteño, and barely beating Cobresal.

 

Look, it’s a crappy draw for my Tricolores, but they did show they can go into Brazil and get a positive result earlier in the tournament, and I’d rather face Corinthians at full strength than another team with several players missing, so I can’t fault Munúa’s thinking here. Nacional will just have to reach down deep and pull off another miracle. The first game is next Wednesday in Montevideo, and I’ll be here to tell you all about it. In the meantime, the team, is still right in the thick of things as far as the local tournament is concerned, and they are still in contention for more of that sweet, sweet CONMEBOL, unlike every other Uruguayan team. So let’s just be happy about what we do have.

 

That’s all for me this week, fans. See you next time!

El Bolso

About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.

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