Hello again, fans. It’s a sad, sad day here at El Bolso headquarters, as Nacional was eliminated from the Copa Libertadores and gave up two chances to take the lead in the local tournament. I’m going to keep this one short and sweet, so let’s get right to it.
A Tale of a Fateful Trip
Because of last week’s 1-1 final score, Nacional traveled to Buenos Aires to face Boca Juniors (with a Libertadores semifinal spot on the line) knowing that a scoreless tie would eliminate them. With Nicolás López on the bench because of an injury, who would step up for the Tricolores? Daniel Díaz, that’s who! The Boca defender jumped all over a Leandro Barcia cross in the 21st minute and smacked it right past his own keeper and into the net. Nacional had the lead, and the Bolsos made it hold up until the 73rd minute, when Cristian Pavón got behind the defense on the right wing, crossed the ball past Nacional keeper Esteban Conde, and then got himself redcarded in the ensuing celebration. Even with the man advantage Nacional couldn’t break the 1-1 tie, and so it was on to penalty kicks!
Things started well for Nacional, as captain Diego Polenta, Mauricio Victorino, and Sebastián Fernández all scored. Conde then saved Pablo Pérez‘s shot, but Boca keeper Agustín Orión did the same to Gonzalo Porras. Conde stopped another penalty, this time against Juan Manuel Insaurralde, but Santiago Romero could not seal the deal on the last kick, as Orión came up big once again. Needing to convert to keep Boca alive, Frank Fabra coolly faked Conde out to send it to sudden death. Nacional’s 3rd straight miss, this time by young midfielder Felipe Carballo, gave Federico Carrizo a chance to end it, and the forward responded with a great shot. The Tricolores had their chances but could not take advantage, and a relieved Boca Juniors moves on to the semifinals.
What can I say, fans? Thursday’s game was disappointing, but I can’t complain about the overall Libertadores campaign. Nacional reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009, and did it on the field, something that had not happened in decades (in 2009 Nacional’s second round opponent was removed from the competition over bird flu contagion concerns). More importantly, they were the better team in pretty much every game they played, and were unlucky not to end up in the final four. They went into Sao Paulo not once, but twice to beat down continental powerhouses and gave Boca just about all they could handle. Yes, they fell short, but they should be very proud of what coach Gustavo Munúa and his roster were able to accomplish. Let’s hope whoever is in charge next season (I’m guessing Munúa will parlay an outstanding rookie coaching season into a higher profile and better paying job elsewhere) can keep the team moving in the right direction.
Sandwiched around the big game in La Boca this week were two clear chances for Nacional to take control of the Uruguayan league, and the Tricolores failed both times. First up was the clásico against Peñarol. Nacional came into the game trailing the Carboneros by 2 points in the Clausura and 3 points in the Annual table. Even though the Tricolores were focused on the international competition, they still managed to thoroughly outplay their rivals, and were seconds away from winning the game thanks to two penalty kicks by Polenta. Then, in added time, Game of Thrones extra Marcel Novick tied the game by running into a cross with the back of his neck. I mean, the guy wasn’t even facing the right way! Regardless, the goal sealed a 2-2 tie that felt a lot like a Peñarol win.
Just a week later, and 3 days after the heartbreaking trip to Buenos Aires, Nacional faced Danubio at home. Plaza Colonia, which had taken advantage of the derby tie to take first place in the Clausura away from Peñarol, had only managed a tie against Racing, while the Carboneros received a 4-1 smack-down courtesy of Montevideo Wanderers. A win by the Tricolores would have drawn them even with Peñarol in the annual table, and left them one point shy of the Patas Blancas in the Clausura. Alas, it was not to be. A clearly tired Nacional team, missing the injured López to boot, were no match for Danubio, falling 2-0 to pretty much give up any title hopes for the season.
So where are we now? Well, with just two rounds left, Nacional is 4 points behind Clausura leader Plaza Colonia and 2 points short of second place Peñarol. As far as the annual table, the Tricolores are (still) 3 points behind the Carboneros, and just 3 points ahead of third place Cerro. If Plaza Colonia hangs on to win the Clausura and then beats Peñarol in the finals (assuming that’s who wins the annual table), then both teams will go to the group stage of next year’s Libertadores, and Nacional will have to fend Cerro off for a spot in the first round playoff. If Peñarol wins the Clausura, then Nacional would be in line for the group stage, with Cerro taking the playoff spot. Got all that? I don’t think a title is in the cards for my Tricolores, but there’s still plenty to play for, and I will be back to let you know how it all turns out.
However, it’s almost Copa America time! I’ll be back next week with a full preview of the Centennial edition of the oldest continental tournament in existence. See you then, fans. I’d leave you with one last Copa Libertadores celebration from Pasión Tricolor’s Javier Moreira and Emphysema Guy, but they haven’t posted that yet, so here’s one you’ll enjoy:
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