Hello fans! El Bolso is here once again. This was the week of the Clásico: Nacional and Peñarol facing off yet again, as they’ve been doing since Peñarol was born in 1913 (replacing the entirely different entity called CURCC as the Tricolores’ main rival), and I’m going to tell you all about it. It’s going to be a lengthy post, but I want to show you as much of the surrounding craziness of a Clásico as I can, so you can understand what this is truly like. Also, if you’re not a fan of Alvaro “El Chino” Recoba (or me fawning all over him), you’re going to want to stop reading right now. You’ve been warned.
First rule of the Clásico: don’t give el Chino a chance to beat you.
This was a very special game, even as far as derbies are concerned. Nacional came in looking to continue a stellar season and recover from the 5-0 beating they suffered in last may’s Clásico; Peñarol faced the specter of a lost season, having fallen 11 points behind the leader and suffered an early elimination from the Copa Sudamericana, and wanted to salvage a measure of self-respect and positivity going into the latest presidential elections. Controversy surfaced the in the run-up to the game: anonymous sources claimed that the referee association’s first choice for the match, the experienced Martín Vázquez, let it be known that that he wanted no part of this one, leading to the nomination of Christian Ferreira in his first derby appearance. Then three of Nacional’s young studs (Carlos de Pena, Gastón Pereiro, and Nicolás Prieto) woke up one morning to find threatening messages painted on their front walls, followed in Prieto’s case by more targeted death threats. Unknown persons retaliated by setting off red, white and blue smoke bombs in front of Peñarol forward Fabián Estoyanoff‘s house in the middle of the night. This is not your normal pre-derby behavior in Uruguay (Argentina, maybe), which shows how critical this game was for both teams. Tempers were flaring all over the place.
Nacional coach Alvaro Gutiérrez tried to downplay the importance of the match by claiming that it didn’t matter who won as long as Nacional finished in first place, but this was just standard coaching psychology. The fact is that as steady as Nacional has been under Gutiérrez, many fans on both sides consider the derby the true measure of a team. If Nacional were to fall here, they would be branded as failures by many, especially after last season’s debacle (which directly led to Gutiérrez talking over as interim coach for the remainder of that season ans sowed the seeds for the present success). So no matter how big a lead Nacional had coming into this game, they needed to prove that they were able to defeat their traditional rivals head to head. On Saturday, Racing eliminated the possibility of Nacional clinching the title in this match by beating El Tanque 3-1. The Tricolores were playing for three more points to distance themselves from the pack, but mostly they were playing for respect.
Two more things to point out before we get into the game: first, the afternoon started with the traditional reserve team match, a drab, scoreless tie made meaningful only by the return of Guillermo de los Santos to official competition. De los Santos, you may remember, lost his wife a few weeks ago and had been out of commission since then, so it was great to see him out there again, and it was also nice to see several main team players dedicating their performances to him during post-match interviews. And second, to underscore how crazy these games can get, both Peñarol and Nacional entered the stadium via the other team’s gate, so as to confuse the waiting fans and avoid any type of abuse or misbehavior. They then had to travel through each other’s dressing rooms to get to their own. Again, this is not standard derby behavior, but the powers that be felt it necessary in this instance.
Second rule of the Clásico: DO NOT GIVE EL CHINO A CHANCE TO BEAT YOU!
Let’s get into the “action.” The first half was a pretty sad excuse for a soccer game, with Nacional pushing forward more insistently, but not generating any kind of serious danger. There was a long ball that allowed Iván Alonso to get behind the defense and flick an easy header at Peñarol’s Argenitinian keeper Pablo Migliore (more on him in a moment), and a cross five minutes from time that ended in a wicked de Pena header. Migliore came up huge this time, using a fully extended dive to barely get a hand on the ball and send it crashing off the vertical post (Alonso missed the rebound). Soon after that, Alonso seemed to score in a one-on-one situation with the keeper, but he was (correctly) judged to be off-side at the start of the play.
In fact, the only real excitement of the entire half was provided by the Argentina-born Migliore, who acted like the antagonist in a PSA about ‘roid rage. In addition to spending the whole game flexing his tatted-up guns and giving everyone crazy eyes, he elbowed forward Henry Giménez in the back of the neck 25 minutes in, well after the ball had been cleared into Nacional’s half of the field. Everyone saw it except Ferreira and his assistant, so he got away with that one. He then got in Giménez’s face right before a corner, causing the ref to issue matching yellows. In the second half, he started jawing with Giménez’s replacement, Sebastián Taborda, because why the hell not, going as far as to undo his glove straps while motioning for Taborda to come over and get it on. Did I mention he’s Argentinian? The guy was clearly overcome by the moment; I think he was playing to the stands, showing his commitment to the Aurinegro cause after being one of the primary causes of Peñarol’s recent swoon; he should probably spend a little less time looking for a fight and a little more time working on his free kicks (SPOILER ALERT!!!)
Anyway, the second half started out with more of the same, but just as it looked like Nacional was ready to take the lead, tragedy struck. Peñarol’s Diogo Silvestre brought the ball into the left side of the box, where he was easily hemmed in by two defenders, but as he tried to get a cross off Gonzalo Porras, one of the biggest reasons for Nacional’s success this season, dove forward to cut the ball off. As his front leg blocked the path of the ball, his back knee made contact with Diogo’s back foot, and the Brazilian immediately pulled a Greg Louganis, forcing Ferreira to call for a penalty. Was it a good call? Well, there was contact, so yes, it was a good call, albeit a silly, silly play by Porras. Antonio Pacheco, playing in his record-breaking 58th Clásico, calmly stepped forward and ended Gustavo Munúa‘s scoreless streak at a breathtaking 710 minutes (that’s 10 minutes short of 8 games!). Peñarol had the lead twelve minutes into the second half and things looked bleak for the good guys. Sticking with his time-honored anti-fútbol philosophy, coach Fossati immediately pulled Pacheco out of the game to bring on an extra defender.
That’s when Alvaro Gutiérrez decided to go for broke: in the 68th minute, he took out a defender (Luis Espino), a midfielder (Pereiro) and a forward (Giménez) and put in three extra guys up front: Recoba, Taborda, and Sebastián “Papelito” Fernández. After that, Nacional basically pushed Peñarol into their own penalty box. Alonso had a couple of near-misses, as did Recoba on a long free kick that Migliore punched out. Still, the Tricolores could not find the tying goal. Fifteen minutes from time, Damián Macaluso was shown a direct red card for an awful charge on Fernández, but six minutes later Santiago Romero stopped a counterattack by blocking an opponent with his body and was sent off as well. There was talk of an elbow; all I saw was a clear obstruction deserving of a yellow card, but Romero should have known that after the Macaluso incident everyone wearing a white jersey was potential fodder for a makeup call. In any case, with both teams down to ten men and the clock ticking down, Nacional supporters were growing restless. Over on the other side, meanwhile, Peñarol fans were surely rehearsing the speeches they would give ad nauseam in the following days: you won the tournament, you finished ahead of us by a big margin, but when the chips were down you couldn’t stand up to us, like the cagones you always are. You could feel that story coalescing in the visiting stands.
Third rule of the Clásico: sometimes grey hairs are cool.
In the 90th minute de Pena took a corner from the left side. Munúa, joining the attack out of sheer desperation, shielded Diego Arismendi from the defense, and the midfielder headed the ball forward from the penalty spot, right to where Alonso and Fernández were standing, unmarked, in front of Migliore. Papelito took a quick turnaround shot; the ball bounced off the goalie’s chest, back off Fernández, and into the goal. At first it looked like Alonso had touched it inches off the line, but he did not. It also looked like the bounce hit Fernández in the hand, but Ferreira ruled incidental contact in allowing the goal. Should it have counted? You’re asking the wrong guy, friend. I’ll say this: as fast as the play was, I can’t imagine that the contact was intentional, and his hand was right up against the body, so I can see why the ref called it the way he did (although it’s more likely he barely saw anything in the blur). In fact, I still don’t know who got credit for the goal, as it’s believed that Ferreira’s official game report gave it to Alonso. Don’t worry, Papelito. We know better.
Nacional was not done. After the restart and a weak cross into the box by a Peñarol player, the Tricolores pushed the ball up to Recoba for the counter, and he was taken down just shy of midfield. He took the free kick himself, sending a soft sideways pass to Diego Polenta. The young center back, who was solid as usual even though he had twins on the way (his wife delivered Monday morning), sent a long ball towards the opposing area. Taborda jumped up about 35 yards from the goal, and Carlos “La Hormiga” Valdez (The Ant) climbed up his back to head the ball away. Ferreira called a foul; the Tenfield announcers claimed it was a bad call, because in soccer it’s perfectly legal to gain leverage by planting your knee in your opponent’s back while pushing off his shoulder with your arm. Way to show your true colors, guys. Anyway, the scene was set for more of some patented Chino heroics. After a few minutes of getting the Peñarol players to stop arguing and respect proper distance, Recoba stepped up and took a curving shot that eluded the wall and sneaked in next to Migliore’s left post. Once again, El Chino had worked his magic against Nacional’s biggest rival, backing up his reputation as one of the biggest clutch players in Uruguayan soccer today, and Nacional had an improbable, near-miraculous win that leaves them a step away from the title and sinks the hated Manyas once again into Copa Sudamericana territory.
Fourth rule of the Clásico: Ole, ole ole oleeeeeee, Chinoooooooo, Chinoooooooo…
The game ended soon after that, as Nacional’s players and fans erupted in celebration. Fossati, in typical Manya style, went after the referee and had to be kept away by police; he’d tender his resignation in the locker room minutes later (one imagines that he started every conversation with “I quit!” in order to avoid being fired first). The stats show this was a well-deserved win: a 7-3 edge in shots and 6-1 in corners. Peñarol did win the physical battle, committing 23 fouls to Nacional’s 13, and hey, they did end Munúa’s streak at 710 minutes, so that’s nice. Nacional kept it’s 7 point lead over Racing and stayed 11 points ahead of surging River Plate; they can clinch the title next weekend if they match Racing’s result. Peñarol is now 14 points behind the leader in fourth place and must recover quickly, because they need to stay within striking distance of the three Libertadores spots. They announced that reserve coach and former legend Paolo Montero will take over for the rest of the season and that they will find a more permanent solution for the Clausura. With elections looming later this month everything about this decision will be political: someone already got Diego Aguirre, the team’s first choice, to say that he will only sign if the current President stays in power. Keep doing what you’re doing, boys.
I’ll tell you what though, I feel bad for Pacheco. By all accounts he’s a great guy (he and Recoba are close friends and often collaborate on business ventures and charity efforts off the field) and a huge locker room presence. Playing what many assume will be his last season, in the game in which he set the record for derby participation, he was minutes away from once again being the hero; now he’s left empty-handed. He’s 38 and at the same stage of his career as Recoba’s, the difference being that he’s being asked to do much more than El Chino because his team is less talented. On top of that, it’s all but assured that Aguirre will become coach in a few weeks, and that’s not good news: the last time Aguirre returned to Peñarol, the first thing he did was get rid of Pacheco, which led to the player cooling his heels at Wanderers for a season. When Aguirre abandoned ship six months later, Pacheco was asked to return and he refused, arguing that he had made a commitment to his new team and he needed to see it through (unlike Aguirre, who uses Peñarol as a halfway house in between lucrative coaching stints in the Middle East). So it’s entirely possible that Pacheco’s reward for his dedication and effort could be a swift kick in the behind come Christmas time. Even if he stays, he’ll be playing for a man who doesn’t want him around. Sorry, Tony. You’ve been a dignified rival for many, many years and you deserve better than the circus tent that’s about to fall on your head.
I can’t overstate how big a win this was for Nacional. It cemented their status as the best team of the tournament, gave their wunderkind coach an entire new level of moral authority (he showed the experienced and well-traveled Fossati a thing or two about playing to win, I tell ya whut), broke a streak of more than two years without an official competition win against Peñarol and ensured that the 5-0 derby from six months ago is pretty much off the table as a conversation topic for a while. As for Recoba, what more can you say? That streak that I just talked about started after the 2012 Clausura win in which he scored a game winning goal on a free kick to seal a come-from-behind win and send the Tricolores to their most recent Uruguayan Championship. The one before that featured another Recoba big shot, this time a penalty kick with no time left on the clock to seal a 2-1 win, again from behind. Sound familiar? After two years of declining skills and reduced minutes, El Chino is back where he belongs, scoring the goals no one else dares to score.
So that’s it fans, that’s the story of the Clásico. There was a lot of other action around the world (did Suarez save Barcelona’s bacon again? You bet he did! Did Cavani score yet another game-winning goal? Two of them, one midweek in the CL and one over the weekend in the French Championship.) but I think we’ve had enough fun for today, so let’s close with the highlights. If you prefer your soccer action without grown men crying and blubbering on air, here are the Tenfield recap, a 25 minute highlight video (watch this one for coverage of the Migliore shenanigans), and a recording of the last 20 minutes of the game plus the immediate aftermath and player interviews.
If, on the other hand, you want to know what this victory meant to Nacional fans, here’s your weekly shot of Pasion Tricolor:
Vamo’ arriba el bolso, carajo!!! See you next week!
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